don’t know what i’m supposed to do (haunted by the ghost of you)
I’m just a man but I know that I’m damned
all the dead seem to know where I am.
- Lord Huron
Stiles sees dead people.
Yep. Seriously. Thanks to a concussion courtesy of a piece of his own damn car – a werewolf-wielded piece, no less – Stiles is the Haley Joel Osment of Beacon Hills. And guess what?
It’s a giant pain in the ass.
Ghosts are the most self-involved beings ever, and that’s saying a lot because Stiles grew up with Jackson Whittemore.
Look…it’s not like Stiles blames them. He gets it, even. They’re ghosts, which means they’re stuck in this weird earthy limbo until they can figure out what the hell is keeping them tethered, and why they can’t let go, walk into the light, and move on to wherever it is they go when they disappear for good. Stiles wouldn’t want to be stuck here either, not if there was something better out there in the great beyond or whatever. But god…you’d think at least one of them would be a little more thoughtful in the midst of all their undead angst and remember what it was like to be a human teenager. Like, he’s not expecting bank hours here, but the least they could do is recognize that the one guy in the tri-state area who can hear them is a still growing boy with tests and lacrosse practice and an actual (if sad) social life and waking him up in the middle of the night just to solve their problem is the tiniest bit incon-fucking-siderate.
Also – and this definitely needs to be stated – considering that Stiles is their best buddy and their best shot at moving forward, is a relatively normal sleep pattern really too much to ask for in return?
No. He doesn’t think so.
“Gerry…” he says through a yawn, “it’s okay to let go, man.”
Stiles sits on the side of his bed, rubs at his eyes with his left hand, digs his toes into the rug beneath his feet. It’s two thirty in the damn morning, Stiles was up until just before one doing research for Derek, and he has a Chemistry test at nine thirty.
He has to be up in four and a half hours to get to school on time. Four and half. Ghosts suck.
Stiles heaves out a sigh as Gerry paces irately in front of him, hands waving erratically as he details every single possible reason he can think of why it isn’t okay to let go. Why it could never possibly be okay. The dude has an itemized list and he punctuates each item on it with a finger thrust into the air, voice rising in both volume and pitch as he goes. He isn’t listening so Stiles accepts his fate, nods and stands and walks downstairs to make himself a cup of tea, Gerry following him the whole way, Stiles wincing every time Gerry’s mouth gets too close to his ear. He might as well settle in – Gerry won’t stop until he’s said what needs to be said, what he needs someone to hear. And lucky Stiles, that person is him. That person is always him.
This is his life.
He puts the kettle on, leans forward with his forearms against the counter, watches Gerry pace on the other side of the island, nods whenever Gerry glances his way and sighs, heavy and resigned. Occasionally he meets the eye of the dead cowboy who’s watching Gerry from the other side of the room, expressionless, and lifts his eyebrows in silence and commiseration.
Here’s your lesson for the day, kids: unless you want to spend the rest of your life being harassed by ghosts at all times of the day, in every place you can think of – the shower is not an off-limits zone, fyi, so just mull over that for a moment – then when you hear about a dead body in the woods and you think it might be neat to investigate? Don’t. Seriously. Don’t do it. Because in Stiles’ experience, dead bodies always seem to lead to werewolves, and werewolves? They lead to concussions via car part, which lead to your entire life changing in front of your eyes, without your say so. And that? That leads to sleepless nights and restless days and dead cowboys and Gerry, ranting at you as he paces in front of your kitchen counter.
The kettle whistles and Stiles pulls it off the heat, turns off the burner, pours it into the waiting mug and settles in for the long haul. Maybe he should spring for an electric kettle. With all the tea he’s making these days, it would cut down on the energy bill for sure.
“Number…what number am I on again?”
“Thirteen,” Stiles adds helpfully, and takes a sip of his Sleepytime, nodding when Gerry gives him a brisk thank you and continues on, as if he never stopped. Lucky number thirteen.
God, he hopes he stays awake during his chemistry test. Harris already has it out for him, and he is not losing out on Berkeley because Gerry’s a thoughtless asshole.
In the beginning Stiles actually thought this whole seeing dead people thing might not be that bad, and that’s because in the beginning there was Harry, and Harry was the biggest fucking red herring ever.
It took Stiles a couple days post concussion, but eventually he figured out that some of the people he was seeing wandering around weren’t a: hallucinations, or b: actually people anymore – the guy in the 70s leisure suit that wandered through the grocery store with a bullet hole through the center of his forehead that no one else seemed to notice was a pretty big clue – but he still didn’t know what to do about it, or even if he was supposed to do something about it. And it’s not like the ghosts were any help. None of them even so much as looked at him, although Stiles is guessing this is largely because none of them had figured out that Stiles could actually see them yet. And then along came Harry.
Harry was a nice old guy in his 80s who’d died in the best way you could possibly go – at home, in his sleep. When he figured out Stiles could both hear and see him, he’d responded with a soft Oh! and proceeded to say hello, young man, and isn’t it lovely weather we’re having today?
As far as first time ghost encounters go, Stiles would have to admit he hit the mother lode there.
Helping Harry was easy, and actually kind of nice. Harry was the one who explained to him that all ghosts have unfinished business – they aren’t hanging around for no reason – and Harry’s unfinished business was the stuff of a Nicholas Sparks novel (minus the heavy-handed Christian themes). He just wanted his last words to his wife to be I love you, instead of what they’d actually been. (Thank you for turning off the light, dear.)
So with Harry along for the ride, Stiles ran into Helen at the grocery store at the time Harry told him she always went, every week, and proceeded to tell her this story about how he’d had a conversation with Harry once and all he could talk about was Helen, and how beautiful she was, and how much he’d loved her. Stiles had helped her carry out her bags to the car and told her she looked exactly like her picture and she’d called him a nice young man and told him some stories about Harry and when she finally left, Stiles waved to her as she drove out of the parking lot. And then Harry thanked Stiles, turned, and walked into the light with a big smile on his face.
This ghost thing? Easy as fucking pie.
Stiles should’ve known better.
Stiles claps a hand to his mouth, covers up his third yawn since getting to the loft about 15 minutes ago, winces when it makes his head throb.
He needs a nap. And a couple Advil, but like the forgetful, distracted idiot he is he left the bottle in the car. Fucking Gerry.
Peter is holding court in front of the couches with the majority of the pack lecturing about various supernatural creatures, but Stiles, standing a ways back from everyone else against the kitchen island, is only half paying attention. For one thing, as the guy who does the research Peter’s info is essentially Supernatural Creatures 101 to him, and for another he’s a little more focused on his newest ghost buddy: an almost entirely non-verbal teenage girl in bare feet and a dirty, ripped yellow sundress who’s hovering around the center of the room, looking around at everything through haunted eyes. She appeared just after chemistry class with a piercing scream in the main hallway at school but has been mum ever since, though she occasionally turns her big eyes to Stiles and stares at him longingly.
This one’s going to suck. He can already tell. Thank god Gerry walked into the light this morning just before school started. He’s old hat at handling two ghosts at once – hell he has two right now – but two high-maintenance ghosts?
Stiles’ eyes slip over to the ghostly cowboy Zeke, leaning against the wall next to the entertainment center, his eyes fixed on the new girl across the loft. Stiles is just checking on him too, though he’s not really sure why he’s doing it. Zeke is about as low-maintenance as it gets.
“Having problems sleeping?”
“What? No,” Stiles says through another yawn, and Derek’s unimpressed eyebrows rise higher. “Just burning the candle at both ends. Midterms and research.” It’s a half-truth, but Stiles knows he can lean on it and Derek won’t know he’s lying since he’s not, not really. He reaches into his bag, pulls a stack of papers out and slaps them on Derek’s chest. “There ya go, buddy. Your research on water demons.”
Derek braces his hand against the papers to stop them from falling. “This could’ve waited.”
Stiles snorts. No it couldn’t. If experience has taught him one thing, it’s that their pack always seems to be on the verge of being attacked. And Stiles would much rather be over prepared any day than be thrown into a situation totally blind.
It’s a huge part of his survive the shitstorm that is Beacon Hills plan.
Besides, this is what he does for the pack. It’s why they keep him around. Without this, what else does he have to offer them?
He isn’t exactly known for his fighting skills.
Stiles tunes back in to Peter, listens for a bit as he starts listing the various types of goblins out there but quickly tunes out again – it’s nothing he doesn’t already know from his research, and his new friend is a little more interesting, since she’s moved and is now pacing in front of the windows, alternating staring out of them with turning those big, haunted eyes back on Stiles. He swallows, and wonders if the screaming was a onetime thing, or if he can expect to hear it again, if he should worry about being woken up in the middle of the night by the terror of a long dead teenage girl, if he should worry about being startled in class when he gets too complacent.
He wishes she would just tell him what she needs, stop making him wait for a bomb to go off. He hates it when they make him wait. But then even pre-ghosts he was never any good at that. Too antsy and anxious and questioning for his own good.
“Stiles,” Derek says with an undercurrent of impatience, and on impulse Stiles’ head snaps back to look at him. The movement causes his already aching head to pound harder, and he can’t control the wince that escapes – much like he can’t control the headache itself that’s been dogging him since this whole stupid ghost business started. He’s pretty sure it’s just his body telling him he needs to sleep, but it’s not like that’s likely to happen anytime soon, not with this totally un-asked for new vocation of his.
Stiles finally looks over to find Derek’s eyebrows raised high, Derek watching Stiles expectantly.
Stiles shifts. “What?”
Derek’s eyes narrow and shift away from his to the windows, scanning the area Stiles had been looking at and Stiles clenches his jaw and watches him, his stomach flipping and twisting.
Derek’s eyes slowly shift back and forth across the windows for a few long, tense moments before just as slowly returning to rest on Stiles, eyebrows drawn closer together than before and a deeply set frown on his lips. “You need to get more sleep.”
Yeah, no kidding.
He sighs on an exhale, huffs out a wry laugh. “I didn’t know you cared, big guy.”
It’s kinda nice, actually. Something new from Derek.
“Sleep deprivation can cause cognitive dysfunction, and you’re already slower and less agile than the rest of us.”
Ah, yeah. Okay. There it is. Stiles’ regularly scheduled punch in the gut.
Stiles gives another laugh, a sharper, harsher one this time that has Derek taking a step back from him. “Got it. Stiles is human. Stiles is weak. Stiles has special limitations that have to be accounted for.”
He turns away from Derek, crosses his arms over his chest, hears Derek huff through his nose hard.
It’s always nice to be reminded how much weaker you are than your friends, isn’t it?
Across the loft he meets Zeke’s eye, then looks away almost immediately from the quiet, measuring gaze he sees reflected back at him.
“What about ghosts?” Stiles hears Erica ask and Stiles straightens up, his eyes flicking to his new buddy briefly before they snap back to Peter, watching his face expectantly and, he has to admit, more than a little hopefully.
There’s a considerable pause and then Peter says, “Tricky question. Technically the supernatural world believes they might exist. But sightings are nonexistent, so it’s hard to substantiate, and if anyone can see them…they aren’t talking. At this point they’re more…rumor than fact.”
“What do you think?”
Peter draws out the silence, eyes twinkling, lips curling up. Stiles is pretty sure he’s never met anyone who enjoys being the center of attention more. And again, he knows Jackson Whittemore.
He gives a delicate shrug. “I think humans have wonderful imaginations.”
Stiles tunes out Erica’s follow-up question as his stomach sinks in disappointment and his eyes drift away one more time to the girl in the dirty yellow dress, arms wrapped around herself as she shakes. Her mouth opens and closes like a baby bird and clicking noises come out of her throat like she’s trying to speak, but her voice won’t cooperate. He clenches his jaw as he watches her even though it makes his head pulse, the pain tightening over his head like a crown.
Right, Stiles thinks. This is just his imagination. As if, out of all the things he could choose, he would ever choose to imagine this, imagine her.
Just his imagination.
What a crock of shit.
Once Stiles got over the initial shock of seeing people who weren’t supposed to be there, the first thing he thought of was his mom. He thought of her hospital room and the way she’d attacked him as if she hadn’t known who he was. He thought about the decline that happened way too fast. And for a few panicked days he wondered if that’s what this was: the first warning of the shitty Russian roulette of a genetic hand he’d been dealt rearing its ugly head, forcing his dad to once again watch someone he loved become some horror movie version of themselves and forcing Stiles to lose more and more of himself every day until it killed him.
Those were a shitty few days.
And then Harry appeared and told him things he couldn’t know about people he’d never met. And when he shared some of Harry’s favorite memories with Helen and she’d lit up, his whole body unclenched.
It wasn’t FTD. Thank the fucking lord for that.
So post-Harry, Stiles threw himself into research. He combed through books and visited every single legitimate supernatural site in his arsenal, looking for as much info on ghosts as he could find before he outed himself and brought his newfound special ability up to the group.
Only problem? Every single site seemed to treat ghosts as more rumor than fact. Most of them said they were real, but there was a serious shortage of legitimate sightings of any kind, and by shortage Stiles means none. Zero. Zilch. Nada. There were no legitimate sightings. All the instances of claimed ghost sightings actually turned out to be experiences of spirit emanations – the pieces of themselves humans leave behind when they die. Ghostly echoes, but not ghosts, who Stiles knew looked and acted and walked and talked as if they were still alive. For the first time in his life, Stiles’ standard research methods failed him. So there was nothing for it but for Stiles to dive in and do a fuckload of hands on research.
And when he says a fuckload, he means a fuckload. Post-Harry, ghosts started coming out of the woodwork, in one case quite literally. One Saturday John Butler walked right through a wall in front of Stiles, scared the shit out of him, and got him banned from the public library for the rest of the month.
Pompous portly Victorian half-naked bastard. God. He was the actual worst.
They came from all sides, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone but somehow still all together in some massive uncoordinated wave of death and sadness and anger. They all wanted their problem fixed, their last wish granted, and they all wanted it now, Stiles’ schedule be damned.
So – since he had less than half a say in the matter, and since ignoring them definitely didn’t work (they just screamed louder and longer until Stiles caved to their every fucking whim) – he learned to work his schedule around them. He slept less and spent a little more time away from the pack and started knocking out the ghosts and their issues one by one using a not so scientific system he liked to call The Deli Counter.
Now serving number 47.
They took to it pretty easily – thank god – and it took Stiles a few very sleepless, busy months, but he finally got through that initial wave. Some of the requests were sweet, some were weird. Most were exactly what Stiles was expecting, if he’s honest: they left someone behind, and they just wanted that person to know they’d loved them. Stiles came up with a myriad of ways to handle their requests. He wrote letters or emails to some surviving family members, visited others. In one case an old lady – Eugenia…white haired and stooped over and shaky and bird boned – had died alone and had simply wanted someone to visit her grave and pay their respects. He still visits her grave every week, brings her daffodils when he can, daisies when he can’t.
They were her favorite flowers.
One guy wanted Stiles to eat his favorite meal for him and describe it to him, another one wanted to run with a buddy one last time and tell him about this girl he’d had a crush on, since his buddy hadn’t shown up for their regular run the day he’d had a heart attack on the middle of the trail and died. Barring some truly illegal requests – Stiles was not about to poison an entire family of some asshole’s descendants no matter how badly he’d cheated the dead dude at cards – Stiles did it all.
Now The Deli Counter is closed. He never gets more than 3 or 4 ghosts at a time these days so there just wasn’t the need for it anymore, which is a nice fucking change from when his bedroom was so full they were packed in like sardines and Stiles kept feeling this tightness in his chest, like he was a half second away from a panic attack. They still have the same lack of boundaries, though. The same lack of awareness. They still wake him up in the middle of the night, they still try and get him to engage with them in public – and look…he doesn’t care how important their shit is, Stiles is not starting a conversation with them in the middle of APUSH class or in the frozen foods aisle at Raley’s, no matter how loud they scream or how many names they call him. The last thing he needs right now is for someone to get suspicious and think he’s crazy. This is a small town, and his dad is the Sheriff.
They still try though – jesus, do they try. Stiles has left the lunch table more than once with a half-baked excuse when the ghost of the moment just wouldn’t shut the hell up – he’s sure he’s going to crack a tooth one of these days from clenching his jaw so hard. He tasted blood the other day when he quite literally had to bite his tongue to keep from reacting.
But it’s a fleeting problem really, as fleeting as the ghosts themselves are. This too shall pass and all that, and it’s not like Stiles can really do anything about it. So he lets it go, stocks up on more Advil to cut through the headaches, and helps shepherd them on their way to their afterlife like Charon on the river Styx. They come to him, he helps them, and they leave. Every single one. That’s what they do: they move on. They leave.
Well, except for Zeke.
Zeke showed up for the first time just after Harry left, at the beginning of the mass ghost influx, and he was different from the start. For one thing, he was quiet and watchful while all of his brethren talked too much, too loudly, and for too long. Zeke has never bothered him in the bathroom, has never tried to talk with him while he’s having dinner with his dad. He’s never insisted Stiles drop whatever he’s doing to help him right that fucking moment. Zeke has never, in fact, asked for his help at all. Whatever his deal is, whatever’s keeping him here…it’s a mystery to Stiles. Because every time Stiles has offered to help him, Zeke has waved him off with a shake of the head and flick of the brim of his dusty cowboy hat as if to say thanks partner, but not today.
He’s basically always around, somewhere close by, hovering while managing to not actually hover. Sometimes he’ll be gone for a day or so – going wherever it is he goes – but he never fails to return in the end, back to Stiles. And on those days Stiles will admit he feels a little reassured when he steps through the front doors at school and sees Zeke leaning up against his Jeep in his dusty boots, vest and collarless shirt, like he stepped off the set of a Western movie and into the school parking lot. Comforted. It’s a bizarre fucking thing to say, but some days Zeke is the only thing that makes him feel grounded.
Zeke came back yesterday from one of his little side trips – keeping his respectful, watchful distance like usual until Stiles’ new friend screamed this afternoon and he came striding into the school hallway like it was something he always did. And to be fair, that’s not completely inaccurate. When the hard ones come, the really hard ones, he always seems to come a little closer, watch a little harder, stay a little longer.
Right now his eyes are fixed across the loft on the girl in the sundress, his relaxed hand resting on his six shooter, slung low across his hips.
Stiles wonders what could prompt Zeke to pull out his gun, how quickly he could fire if he had to. He wonders what would happen if he actually did.
Stiles come back to himself with a start, finds Erica looking at him expectantly, a half step away. He looks around and sees that the meeting has broken up, most of them heading out the door to the loft.
Shit. He needs to pay better attention, to stop letting his mind wander so much. Not a healthy habit to pick up when you’re the slowest, lone human member of a werewolf pack.
At least it wasn’t Derek who caught him this time. His thousand yard Alpha stares are becoming a little too frequent part of Stiles’ life for his taste.
“Well?” she asks, eyebrows raised. She crosses her arms over her chest, cocks a hip as she waits for Stiles to answer a question he never heard.
Should he play it off, pretend he was totally listening the whole time? Futz around the details until Erica fills in the gaps for him?
Nah. He doesn’t have the emotional energy for that shit right now, and she’d read through that in a half second anyway. She’s too good. And it’s not like Stiles can hide his chemo signals from her.
“Movies,” she says, the word overly precise and a little clipped. She’s pissed he wasn’t listening. Again. He doesn’t blame her for that. “You coming or not?”
He’d love to, actually. Take a break from all this bs, relax for like the first time in months, erase that irritated fold in the skin between Erica’s masterly sculpted eyebrows. But he can’t. He’s too tired, and if he falls asleep in the theater and his new buddy wakes him with a scream, Stiles won’t be able to control his reaction. That wouldn’t be good for anyone.
“Next time, yeah?”
She rolls her eyes, shakes her head, already heading toward the door.
“Sure, whatever,” she throws over her shoulder dismissively, and Stiles shifts when Isaac throws him a look too before shaking his head and shutting the door behind them, leaving Stiles alone in the loft.
Stiles stares at the door long after Isaac shuts it, huffs a sigh through his nose, rubs a rough hand over the back of his neck.
It’s not like Stiles means to be a stick in the mud. It’s not like he’s trying to pull away from them. He just doesn’t know how to avoid it. His life isn’t exactly his own these days. He’s not sure it ever will be again.
“You love movies.”
Stiles turns with a start, finds Derek watching him from the other side of the island.
“What are you doing here?”
He lifts his eyebrows. “I live here,” he says, as if Stiles is being deliberately stupid or something which, fair enough. Stupid questions get stupid answers.
Stiles nods, waves his hand through the air. “I meant what are you still doing here? Shouldn’t you be headed out to the movies with the rest of them?”
Derek’s face is unreadable. “Sometimes they need to be regular teenagers, without their Alpha hanging around.”
Oh. That’s…considerate, actually. Thoughtful.
“Why aren’t you going? You love movies,” he repeats, firmer this time.
Stiles shrugs. He hopes it looks easier going than it feels. “Got some stuff to do around the house for my dad, plus a bunch of AP homework. You know. I’ll catch them next time.”
“That’s what you said last time she asked.”
Derek comes around the island, stops in front of him, eyes boring into him. “What’s going on with you, Stiles? You’ve been off for weeks.”
Since Stiles has been Jennifer Love Hewitt-ing it around Beacon Hills for the last several months, maybe he’s doing a better job of handling it than he thought.
When Stiles doesn’t answer right away Derek repeats his name much more insistently, eyes darting across Stiles’ face.
Stiles has to tell Derek. He knows he does. That countdown clock started the moment Disco Ernie showed up with a bullet hole in his forehead in the Mexican foods aisle at Raley’s.
But there are two problems with that. Firstly, Stiles has no real way of proving that ghosts are real to Derek – of all the people he’s helped, none of them have mentioned the Hales, and it’s not like he’d asked if they had a Hale family anecdote or story he could’ve verified with Derek to prove their existence is a real, legit thing and not just some figment of Stiles’ imagination. So without verifiable proof Derek would have to take Stiles at his word and since Stiles is pretty sure he occupies the space in Derek’s head labeled Scott’s Human Plus One – Annoying but Occasionally Useful, that’s not exactly likely to happen.
Stiles has no illusions. He knows he’s more pack adjacent than actual pack, most days. That he shouldered his way in through Scott and managed to stay because he’s just helpful enough not to ignore entirely, even though Scott is largely not around these days because he’s going through his teenage werewolf crisis phase. Which brings him to the second point:
Having a thing for Derek makes this whole stupid thing like ten times harder.
He knows Derek matters more to him than he does to Derek. He does. And Stiles is pretty good at hiding that, slapping Derek on the shoulder like a buddy when Derek allows it, teasing him the same way he does Jackson or Isaac or Erica, asking him questions about his family and bugging him until he gets a response. But it’s still there no matter how much Stiles ignores it, still this thing that lives and breathes under Stiles’ breastbone, just waiting for a chance to get out. And he’s pretty sure that the moment he tells Derek all about his (sorta) newfound gift, that it’ll just come seeping out of him. That he won’t be able to stop it. And Stiles isn’t sure he can handle it when Derek – inevitably – rejects him. He’s just not ready.
He’s just not that brave.
When Stiles still doesn’t speak, Derek takes a frustrated step forward, says, “I need to be able to protect the pack. If there’s something wr-”
Derek bites off his own words, blinks as he takes a step back and looks away from Stiles. But Stiles feels it anyway, like a punch.
He may as well have finished his sentence. It’s not like Stiles can’t fill in the blanks.
If there’s something wrong with you, I need to know how to keep everyone else safe.
“You know, Derek,” Stiles says slowly, voice a little tired. Or hell, a lot tired. All he is these days is yawns stitched together with the last strings of his sanity, soaked in Red Bull and the dregs of Sleepytime tea. “This may come as a shock to you, but not everything is a supernatural shitstorm waiting to happen.” He grabs his bag off the ground as Derek swallows, his mouth turning down. “And fyi, if there were something going on with me that I thought would hurt any of you, I’d be the first fucking person to do something about it. I wouldn’t keep that a fucking secret.” He shakes his head. “See you later.”
Stiles doesn’t look back as he leaves, doesn’t wait for Zeke or the new girl as he rubs his chest, trying to soothe the ache under his skin. They’ll find him. They always do.
That’s his fucking life now, after all.
So, first step? Find out new girl’s name. She’s not talking, and what she’s wearing doesn’t give him a lot of clues as to when she died, but he doesn’t recognize her and Beacon Hills is a pretty small place – it only has one high school, so Stiles is sure that if she’d been in school in the last couple of years with him he’d at least vaguely recognize her. So he crosses his fingers and based on the style of her dress narrows his time frame down to about 50 years: mid-60s to early 10s. No one needs to tell Stiles that’s still a pretty big window.
He spends a couple of hours using his access to the Sheriff’s department to look up old files on runaways, unsolved murders, deaths, and kidnappings during that time period but nothing comes up. Stiles wasn’t really expecting anything to since he doesn’t have much to go on and they’re still working on digitizing some of the old case files, but he was hoping he’d catch a break with this one, that there would be some big flashing file practically yanking him in the right direction.
It’s fine. He’ll check the yearbooks in the library tomorrow at school. Unless she was homeschooled she has to be in there somewhere, and then at least he’ll have something else to call her other than new girl.
In the meantime he’ll go visit Eugenia.
He pulls up to the cemetery and gets out, two bouquets in his hand. He’d picked the brightest colors of gerbera daisies he could find for Eugenia – bright fuchsia and orange and yellow and red – because he wanted her grave to be the showiest, he wanted whoever came into the cemetery next to see them, to look at her stone, to remember her name, to know that somebody remembered her.
He brought peonies for his mom, because those were her favorites.
Zeke waits outside the gates as he always does – Stiles can’t decide whether he’s respectful or just really hates cemeteries – and new girl follows behind him like the world’s strangest duckling in her yellow dress. Stiles heads over to his mom’s grave first, like he always does, and sweeps off the dead pine needles and leaves and picks a few weeds as he talks to her a little. Nothing big, nothing important. Little stuff. Everyday stuff. The kind of stuff he’d say to her if she were still alive. Nothing about ghosts or werewolves or the monster of the week. He wants one thing in his life to be untouched by that, and his dad lives it every day, even if he doesn’t know that yet.
Got an A on my Spanish test yesterday. Harris still hates me. Dad is being a pain in the ass about eating his veggies; it’s like he’s a two year old. Scott is still crazy about Allison. He practically has hearts in his eyes 24/7. You would’ve had so much fun teasing him about that. But they’re not sure if they can stay together, if they can make it work, and it sucks to watch him go through that, you know? You would’ve had good advice for him. You always did.
In the beginning he tortured himself a little bit, looking for her ghost. But she’s never shown up, and Stiles gets that that’s a good thing now. It means she doesn’t have anything to regret, no unfinished business to carry out, and the last thing Stiles wants is for her to blame herself because her disease made her into something else. She was a really great mom. And he’s glad she knew that, at the end.
She could still show up, of course. Zeke lived in the 1800s (an educated guess – Mr. No Share hasn’t exactly told him), Harry died a year ago. A month ago he helped a lady from 1929 who died after being thrown off a horse.
But she won’t show up. Stiles knows she won’t. Somewhere deep in his gut he knows. She would’ve found him already if she was still around. She would’ve been the first one he saw. He sat here all day with her the day he figured that out. Grieving again, he knows. Saying goodbye again after losing her one more time. After getting his hopes up, even if it was only for a day.
He gives her headstone another sweep of the hand and walks across the cemetery to Eugenia’s, pulls the dried out flowers out of the metal cup he planted in the ground next to her stone, replaces them with the bright daisies. He cleans up her grave too, sits and talks to her for a minute, tells her about the newest ghosts he’s helped. He tells her he misses her too, because he kinda does, and because someone should. And because he’s the only someone she has.
When he gets up he brushes his ass off, turns to leave and finds new girl staring down, eyes fixed to Eugenia’s headstone, swaying a little back and forth.
“Hey,” he says, and when she doesn’t respond he says it more firmly, bending and craning his neck to catch her eye. “Hey.”
It takes a minute but her eyes finally drift to him, fix on him.
“Even if you can’t talk to me, I’m going to help you. I’m going to figure out what happened to you. Okay? I promise. You’re not going to be stuck here forever.”
There’s a long pause and then she lifts a hand, drops it so that her fingers trail right through Stiles’ arm. A shiver runs down his spine that he immediately tries to shake off, wincing as he rolls his shoulders and his neck. They don’t know any better – they’re just trying to connect with him, to show their appreciation, to feel somehow closer to him in a way they can’t with anyone living anymore, and he’d be a major asshole if he told them to knock it the fuck off because it makes him feel like his body is being taken over by someone else for a moment, like it isn’t his anymore. But jesus he hates it when they do that. So much.
Stiles turns, ready to come up with some kind of bullshit reason for why he was talking to himself over an old lady’s grave – think they’ll believe he was acting out a scene for his grandma because she always liked to come to his school plays? – when he sees a woman with dark hair and stops, blinks, swallows.
He knows that face. He’s seen it in articles in the local paper, studied it in one of his dad’s case files. He knows that chin, that dark hair. He sees it several times a week. He’s memorized it, the way you do when it belongs to someone who matters to you.
Talia Hale. Derek’s mom. Shit.
It looks like his countdown clock is almost at zero.
“So you’re the boy who talks to ghosts.”
She says it with a wry smile and Stiles pauses a beat, nods, says hesitantly, “Yeah. That’s me. And you’re Talia Hale.”
She nods back easily as if unsurprised he knew that already and takes a step closer. Stiles’ eyes scan the graveyard. He isn’t really looking for anyone else – ghosts do show up alone more often than not – but he’s learned that sometimes families show up together. So he wonders – are there other Hales out there, hiding out amongst the trees, waiting for Talia to make the first move? Waiting on their Alpha, even in death?
“It’s just me,” she says as if she can read his mind, as if she can still hear the rabbit-fast uptick of Stiles’ heartbeat, as if she can still read the strong, strong chemo signals he knows he’s giving off. “The rest of them…moved forward.”
Stiles nods to himself. “Even Laura?”
She didn’t die at the same time as the rest of her family and the way she went was both complicated and gruesome, so he’s been wondering for a while if she would show up, how he would handle that.
She considers him a moment. “You knew Laura?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “But I…came across her body in the preserve.”
He doesn’t want to tell Talia he went looking for her daughter’s dead body. He doesn’t think it makes any difference that he’d never do it again, not now that he knows who the body belonged to, who Laura belonged to. He did it once. That was more than enough.
“Me and a buddy. And the one who attacked her attacked us, so…”
He isn’t sure if she knows how her daughter died, but he also doesn’t want to tell her it was her own brother who did it, who ripped her in half. He is not prepared for that shit.
She frowns. “Is that how you became -”
“Patricia Arquette?” he says, and grins when she gives him a surprised laugh, her face clearing up. “Nah. Head trauma. A few months ago. Totally unrelated.”
Well, not totally unrelated. Because, you know, werewolves.
“I’m Stiles, by the way. Stiles Stilinski.”
Her eyebrows rise. “The Sheriff’s son?”
“The one and only,” he says.
She pauses then smiles, her smile reaching into her eyes. “I didn’t recognize you. You’ve grown up quite a bit since I saw you last.”
His eyebrows furrow together and his eyes narrow as he racks his brain for how they could’ve known each other, for when they could’ve met. He comes up empty.
She waves him off with a hand, as if she didn’t expect him to remember. “You were little. I went by the station to speak with your dad about a few things and you were bouncing from desk to desk, making all the deputies chase after you.”
Yeah, he used to love doing that. Crawling under their chairs, weaving in and out of their legs, stealing the staplers off their desktops and holding them for ransom until they plied him with cookies. Deputy Zimmerman always had Mother’s taffy cookies and those frosted white and pink animal cookies. Those were the best.
“You weren’t going by Stiles then, though. I remember your dad called you something else when he caught you. Mischief,” she says, a twinkle in her eye, and Stiles gives her a sheepish grin.
He remembers that – his dad catching him and holding him aloft by the seat of his pants so they could be eye level, Stiles holding one of the staplers in his hands as he grinned. He always grinned when his dad caught him. It was his favorite game.
“I couldn’t pronounce my real name.”
“Mischief seemed to fit you just fine. But it’s Stiles now?”
“Yeah,” he says.
She nods. “It’s nice to see you again.”
He almost returns the nicety on impulse but then stops himself. No one wants to be seen this way.
“So do you know why you’re still here? Why you haven’t moved forward?”
She shakes her head. “I was hoping you could help me figure that out, actually.”
“Yeah, of course,” he says. “I’d be happy to.” He gestures with his thumb over his shoulder. “As soon as I help this one, I’m all yours.”
Talia looks past him at the girl, takes in her bare feet, her ripped dress, her rat’s nest hair and the way she’s listing from side to side, lost in her own little world. Talia’s mouth turns down and her eyebrows furrow. “Something bad happened to her…didn’t it?”
Stiles considers that as Talia steps up next to him. “I don’t know, she’s not talking. But yeah…I’m guessing it was pretty bad.”
The girl has wandered a little ways away from them now, turned away and staring into the trees.
“If she looks like that…it had to be.”
“Well yeah,” Stiles says, looks at her. “But yours was pretty awful too and you don’t look like…you know…”
He trails off with a few awkward gestures, a few awkward words and an equally awkward shrug of the shoulders that she acknowledges with a nod and a frown.
He doesn’t know why some of them go through an extremely traumatic death like Talia and come to him looking like they always did, like they’re just heading out for an errand, and why others wear the sign of their death like bulls-eyes, like a neon sign. He doesn’t know why sometimes even when they die gently and peacefully they still look like they haven’t. Maybe one day he’ll figure it out. Maybe one day one of them will tell him. It’s not like he knows how to ask them. What would he say? Yeah it sucks that you’re dead and all, but why the fuck do you look normal when you got run over by a Mack truck?
Sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s not that kind of asshole.
“So how do you help someone who can’t talk to you?”
He pauses then looks over at her, slips his hands into his pockets. “I follow the clues. The answer’s always there if you know how to find it. And if you don’t stop looking.”
And Stiles never stops looking.
He avoids the caf the next day at school – where all the rest of his packmates are, having lunch – and heads directly toward the library with his packed lunch, all three ghost buddies in tow. He yawns and nods at the assistant librarian as he passes her and heads into the deepest part of the library where they keep the old yearbooks, drops his backpack onto the corner table.
Jesus, he’s tired. Last night he barely made it to sleep before he was woken up with an ear shattering scream, and it took him a good solid five minutes to talk new girl down. By the time he managed it, Talia and Zeke watching him the whole time, he was too wired to fall back asleep immediately. So he sat up and did some more pack research before finally falling asleep at his desk, his face pressed into his keyboard.
He’s not sure how long he slept this time, but he’s thinking he got maybe five uninterrupted hours? Maybe less. Probably less. Shit.
Still, it’s a little hard for him to be ticked at new girl when he’s pretty sure that scream was involuntary, that she was reliving her trauma. When he finally got her to stop, she seemed surprised – and relieved – to see him.
She’s not Gerry.
He covers his mouth when another yawn bubbles up and reaches up and grabs the first few yearbooks. Class of 1965. Class of 1966. Class of 1967. Class of 1968.
He drops them on the table and drops himself into the wooden chair at the end, unwraps his sandwich and sticks it into his mouth as he flips the first book open to the freshman class and starts scanning the faces, flipping to the next page every time he doesn’t find the face he’s looking for.
“So this is following the clues?”
Stiles looks up at Talia, finishes chewing the bite of sandwich and checks the assistant librarian briefly to see if she’s watching him. She’s not.
“Glamorous, isn’t it?” he whispers then turns back to the yearbook.
She’s quiet while he flips through page after page, as he takes small bites of his sandwich and washes them down with sips from his Mountain Dew.
He’s midway through the last of the first four books he grabbed when she asks, “Is this how you always do it?”
“Nope,” he whispers, his eyes shifting back to the librarian. “Usually I have a name to go off of. Then I use my login with the Sheriff’s department to find out what might have happened if the person I’m helping isn’t sure. And I work from there.”
“Your legal login, right?” she says, one eyebrow lifted and Stiles looks at her a long time, chews his bite of sandwich slowly before he finally answers.
“Sure.” He crumples up his sandwich bag and shoves it in his lunch bag before he stands and grabs four more yearbooks off the shelf.
“She wasn’t in any of those, I’m guessing?”
“Nope,” he says, and settles in with the first of the next four, flipping the pages to 1969’s freshman class.
Nope. Page flip.
Nope. Page flip.
Nope. Page flip.
“Wouldn’t this go faster if your friends helped?”
Stiles looks up and eyes the librarian at the front desk and a couple of girls across the room who walked in a minute ago. None of them are looking his way. He whispers, “Probably, yeah,” and goes back to flipping through the book.
Nope. Not in 1969.
He grabs the next book.
“So why don’t you ask them to help?”
He eyes her a moment, then goes back to flipping through the pages.
Finally, she says, “They don’t know.”
Stiles throws a finger up in the air but doesn’t look her way, shuts the book he was looking through and reaches for the next one.
Got it in one, sister.
She’s quiet while he works through the other books he’d grabbed, quiet while he pushes those books away from himself and across the table, quiet when he grabs the years 1973 through 1976 off the shelf and sits back down with the new set.
He unwraps his chewy granola bar, looks up at the new girl to find her listing back and forth near a shelf, her fingers running along the spines of books while Zeke leans against his own shelf across from her, eyes fixed to her.
That’s another thing Stiles hasn’t been able to figure out yet: why ghosts can touch inanimate things sometimes and other times walk right through them as if they’re not there, and how they can’t seem to touch living things at all. One day he’ll have all this shit figured out.
He takes a bite out of his bar, opens the next book and flips past the staff photos and to the students. She has to be here somewhere.
“What are you doing?”
If Stiles could pick the member of the pack most likely to track him down in the library, it would probably be Erica. Scott, bless him, is way too focused on Allison and his inner angst to notice where Stiles is or is not these days, and everyone else basically doesn’t care, which would hurt if Stiles weren’t accidentally/not-so-accidentally quasi-ignoring all of them on the regular now due to his new after school activities.
Actually, it sort of hurts a little anyway.
But it’s not Erica that came looking for him. It’s Boyd. And that’s…well, surprising would be the right word for it. Because if he had to pick someone to occupy the very bottom of his list, “we’re not friends” Boyd would win in a landslide.
Boyd just ticks his eyebrows up, waits.
Stiles waits too, just long enough to edge this…thing…into super mega awkward territory.
“I’m uh…working on a project. For school,” he adds, when Boyd gives him an unimpressed look, which Stiles’ statement does nothing to eliminate. Not that he was really expecting it to.
“And you had to ditch us and work on it at lunch? It couldn’t wait until after school?”
“Lacrosse practice,” Stiles says, and eyes Boyd as he rips his last bit of granola bar in half. “I didn’t think you cared if I showed up to lunch.”
Maybe prolonged exposure has softened Boyd to him. Maybe this tiny hint of concern is just the beginning of a deep, meaningful relationship filled with mutual appreciation that will blossom in the days to come.
“I’m not the only one at the table.”
Ah. Yep, there it is. Boyd is just the messenger, voted least likely to accept Stiles’ bullshit. That’s much more on brand.
“Right. Well, whoever sent you my way, let them know I’m totally awesome, just elbows deep in this project. I promise to resurface before the meeting tonight.” Stiles squishes the last two pieces of granola bar back together with a forceful squeeze then pops them into his mouth and looks back down at the yearbook, dismissing Boyd and effectively releasing him from his obligation and releasing the both of them from this awkward hellscape of a stilted conversation.
He flips the page, fingers gliding over the textured paper.
Morty Ashworth. Veronica Atwater. James Ball. Susan Baker. Larry Barnett. Stephen Barnett. None of them are her. Another strikeout. Stiles turns the page.
He hopes no one actually names their kid Morty anymore though. Some names should just die and stay dead.
“Pack meeting’s been moved to five.”
Stiles nods, waves a hand at Boyd without looking, totally focused on the yearbook in front of him. But he pauses with his hand on the page and risks a glance up when he finally hears Boyd retreat, watching as he walks out of the library, past the circulation desk, feels himself unclench when Boyd’s finally out of eyesight.
“You’re part of a pack?”
He tenses, glances over at her, hesitates before he says, “Yeah.”
That smarts a little, Stiles has to admit. Nothing like the former Alpha of your current Alpha reminding you of what you are, how your very existence is strange. He winces, gives a sharp nod. It makes his head throb.
There’s a long pause and then she asks, with quiet force, “Do you know what I am? What I was?”
He hesitates a little longer this time. “Yeah.”
Stiles looks over at Zeke and new girl, wonders if either of them ever knew about werewolves when they were alive. He wonders if Talia will go to the same place as humans go when she crosses over. He wonders if she’ll cross over. Zeke is still hanging around, after all.
“Maybe he could’ve helped.”
Stiles looks over at her briefly, shakes his head and looks back down at the book.
“Or I could help.”
Stiles huffs a laugh, turns the page as he rubs at his forehead with his fingers, tries to ease his perpetual headache. Like usual it does nothing, so he reaches into the front pocket of his backpack for the bottle of Advil, pops the last couple in the bottle and chases them with a sip from his Mountain Dew. He’ll have to see if he has time to stop by CVS after practice before the meeting, grab another bottle.
“Sure, great idea. And when Miss Zbene walks over and wonders how a book is flipping its pages all by itself in a room with closed windows and no fans, you can explain that you’re the ghost of a murdered Alpha werewolf who was just helping me track down the name of the murdered ghost of a teenage girl. That should go over well.”
Stiles flips another page.
“Well...we could leave out the part about me being an Alpha werewolf.”
Stiles looks over at her.
“We wouldn’t want to sound ridiculous, after all.”
He huffs a laugh and she smiles at him, a twinkle in her eye.
He flips another page and then stops, straightens up as he stares down at the picture right next to his right hand of a smiling young blonde girl two rows down the page, three pictures from the edge in her freshman school photo, tucked in between a cross-eyed kid named Eric Culver and a chubby, freckle faced, smiling girl named Sadie Curran.
“I found her,” he says, eyes darting back and forth between the happy girl on the page and the ghostly, haunted girl in front of him as Talia comes close, looks at the picture herself over Stiles’ shoulder. It’s her. He found her.
Ellen Cunningham, Class of 1977.
“Ellen,” he says softly as he looks up and she turns, stares at him with widening, intense eyes that bore into him, a shadow of the smiley, fresh faced fourteen year old girl in her school picture, a girl who had no idea her life was almost over. He wonders what she would’ve done differently if she’d known.
“Ellen Cunningham,” Talia says softly, and Ellen looks over at her sharply, her brow furrowing, as if surprised to see Talia standing there. Talia gives her a gentle, motherly smile.
Stiles pulls out his phone, takes a picture of Ellen’s smiling face in the book below him. He has a name now, and that’s what matters. She has her name back. He can do a hell of a lot with a name.
“Ellen Cunningham,” he says, and she looks back at him, eyes searching his face. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Lacrosse practice goes about as well as he expected, which is to say not well at all. The Advil he popped over lunch did nothing to lessen the pounding in his brain, and his lack of sleep has made his already suspect reflexes pretty damn shitty, which is how he ends up on his back for the tenth time that day, staring up at the blue, cloudless sky.
He sighs and lays there in peace for about twenty seconds, slow blinking and enjoying the view, until the view is broken by Jackson’s face hovering over him, an eyebrow raised.
“So how many times is that now?”
“Ten,” Stiles says, and blinks slowly again.
“You enjoying yourself?”
Stiles shrugs. “It’s a nice view.”
Jackson looks over his shoulder, calls out, “He’s fine, coach! I got him,” then reaches out a hand and pulls Stiles up off the ground as they hear coach in the background call an end to practice.
Stiles stumbles a little but regains his footing and goes to move away but Jackson keeps his grip on Stiles’ arm, looks him in the eyes.
When Jackson doesn’t speak Stiles winces from the pounding in his head and says, “What’s up, buddy?”
“You tell me.”
Stiles shrugs. “Just having an off day, I guess.”
“An off day,” Jackson repeats slowly, words clipped, and Stiles knows he doesn’t believe him.
Not that it matters. He can’t tell Jackson the truth, not since Peter’s Creatures 101 lesson yesterday basically shattered any chance Stiles had of just coming out and telling any of them what’s been going on. Also he’s Jackson, not Derek, and Derek is the one he really needs to tell, the one who should know first. The one whose mom is currently hanging out with Stiles like they’re old buddies.
“We all have ‘em,” he says, eyes drifting over to his own ghostly cheering section watching him from the edge of the bleachers as the last of his teammates filter up and out of the field toward the locker rooms. He gives Jackson a half smile and a shrug – something casually dismissive – and starts to walk away when Jackson’s firm hand pulls him back.
“You stole a police van and locked me inside so I wouldn’t hurt anyone else.”
“Yeah?” Stiles says hesitantly. He remembers. Jesus, it’s not like he’s going to forget that.
Jackson’s eyes flick back and forth over his face and his hand tightens on Stiles’ arm – not enough to be painful, but enough to ground Stiles, to keep him there. It’s...comforting, actually. He didn’t know Jackson could do comforting.
“Do I need to steal a police van for you?”
Stiles relaxes, smiles, feels the unexpected warmth spreading through his chest as he claps Jackson on the shoulder in a way he wouldn’t have just a few months ago and wonders.
If he told him everything, if he told him all about the concussion and the ghosts and the lack of sleep and didn’t hold anything back...would Jackson believe him? Would he just...take him at his word? Trust him?
Stiles shakes his head.
“No, man. No need.”
Jackson’s eyebrows tick up and Stiles gives his shoulder a squeeze.
Stiles had been hoping for a quick cat nap before the meeting but practice ran a little long and he barely has time to run into CVS for another bottle of Advil and an energy drink, much less something as indulgent as sleep.
He hops back into the Jeep, tosses the box on his dash and wedges the can of Red Bull between the seats before he reverses out of his parking place, shifts into first and heads toward the loft, his ghostly passengers along for the ride. Stiles tilts his head slowly right then left, trying to stretch his neck out a little, hoping that will help reduce some of the pain.
It doesn’t. Big shocker there.
They ride in silence for a while, which is a dang blessing, and Stiles lets his mind wander. He thinks about the concussion, about Talia in the passenger seat and Zeke and Ellen in the back. He thinks about Harry, about Derek, about his mom...and eventually he finds himself thinking about that movie his mom used to love with Gwyneth Paltrow called Sliding Doors where her life splits into two timelines, two possibilities: one where she missed her train and lived and another where she made her train and died.
He misses his mom.
“What’s on your mind?” Talia asks.
He taps his fingers on the steering wheel.
“I’m wondering whether I missed my train, or whether I made it.”
In the silence that follows he looks over and finds her watching him, eyes intent.
“Did you ever see the movie Sliding Doors?”
She lifts her eyebrows, eyes boring into him – it’s such a Derek response and Stiles swallows and looks away as he shakes his head and tries to clarify. He has to do that with Derek too.
“Multiple timelines, multiple universes. That’s what I’m thinking about. You know...the idea that this isn’t our only reality. That we exist in an overlapping web of timelines where some points might intersect and some might not. That there are other versions of us in other timelines and other universes where we’re spies or animal trainers or vampires or whatever.”
“Vampires?” she asks, unimpressed and maybe a bit incredulous, which is ridiculous considering she’s the ghost of a dead Alpha werewolf. But whatever.
“I was just wondering if this is the only timeline where I can see ghosts or if it’s...you know...a common thing for me.”
Like having brown hair. Or moles. Or a Sheriff for a father.
(That last one just has to be a commonality. It just has to be.)
“And I’m wondering...” He clenches his teeth, grimaces. “I’m wondering if this is one of the bad ones.”
He puts on his turn signal, slows down and takes a right onto State Street.
“I have a question.”
“She says ominously,” Stiles says, and throws a glance over her way. The look she gives him is so unimpressed mom that it makes his heart clench in his chest, makes him miss his mom even more. He clears his throat, focuses back on the road. “Yeah, what?”
“Your friends are werewolves, right?”
“I don’t know if they’re my friends so much as people I associate with because we’re all in on the big supernatural secret and it’s better if we work together than if we don’t but yeah,” he says as he checks the rearview mirror. “Well, Lydia is a banshee and Jackson is a werewolf kanima hybrid…thing? We’re not actually sure at this point, but the good news is he hasn’t killed anyone in a while.”
He looks over at her and takes in her judgy mom eyebrows, rising to her hairline. Now he knows where Derek gets that.
Derek has judgy mom eyebrows. Amazing.
“To be fair, none of it was his fault. He was being controlled. But Lydia saved him from that with the power of true love, which was both pretty awesome and sickeningly twee.”
In the silence he looks over at her again and finds her watching him. He swallows, clears his throat.
“Uh, but as to your original question…yeah, basically. Werewolves.”
“Why haven’t you told them?”
The question is soft but steady, firm, and he takes a moment before he responds.
“When you were alive, what did you teach your pack about ghosts?”
If she’s surprised by the question she doesn’t say anything. But she’s quiet for long enough that he looks over, just to double check that she’d heard him. The nod to herself, the lips pressed together, tell him she did.
“I taught them that ghosts existed, but no proof existed to substantiate that.”
He figured. “Yeah. Well, that’s still the prevailing opinion according to the TED talk at our last meeting.”
She furrows her eyebrows. “TED talk?”
“Right. That wasn’t a popular thing when you were alive. Sorry. It’s just…”
Not that easy to explain or to prove. That’s the problem here. Stiles wanted to trust them from the beginning – he’d love to have trusted them with this from the beginning – he just wasn’t sure he could. He still fights everyday to prove his usefulness to the pack, to prove that being human isn’t the liability they think it is. He couldn’t give them a reason to doubt that.
Besides, he’s always known he would tell Derek first and like he said, he just...hasn’t been ready.
Well...ready or not, that’s going to change soon.
He shakes his head, puts on his turn signal when he sees Derek’s street coming up.
“Hey, so before we get to the meeting there’s something I need to tell you.” He looks over at her briefly, turning his eyes back to the road quickly. “My Alpha…our pack’s Alpha…it’s your son Derek.” He chances another glance at her, finds her looking out through the windshield, mouth parted slightly and bulldozes forward, since that’s the only way he knows how to do this. “Also your brother Peter is part of the pack. He survived the fire.”
She sucks in a breath then huffs out a sound of disbelief.
Stiles licks his lips. This part is never easy no matter who he’s helping but he thinks this, right now, might be the worst he’s ever felt giving news like this. It’s never been personal before now.
“They might be different than you remember them,” he says hesitantly. He can see Derek’s building looming in front of them, getting closer and closer. He starts to slow the Jeep.
She huffs a laugh, but there’s nothing funny about this, about any of it. “It’s been how long since the fire?”
She nods, but winces too, as if she knows but hates the thought of facing what that means. Stiles doesn’t blame her.
“Nine years,” she repeats softly as Stiles brings the Jeep to a stop outside Derek’s building. “Of course they’re different.”
Her voice is wistful and longing and a little heartbroken and Stiles sits in his seat and rubs his neck as he stares up at Derek’s loft and thinks how much he hates this. How shitty everything is. How it sucks that a psycho like Kate got to live for years after she’d almost wiped Derek’s entire family from the earth, while Derek was the one who really had to deal with the aftermath. How Talia was killed and ended up in this purgatory where she can see her only living relatives but can’t touch them, can’t talk to them, can’t tell them how much she loves them.
Sometimes life is so fucking unfair Stiles wants to scream.
He snags the box off the dash, yanks it open and then grabs a couple of pills out of the bottle, swallows them down with a swig of Red Bull. Here’s hoping that takes the edge off a little.
No one says anything as they make their way up to the loft, as Stiles pulls the large sliding door open.
But Stiles pulls up short when he notices everyone watching him – Lydia, Erica, and Isaac from their spots on the couch, Peter from his customary spot on the staircase, Derek, Jackson, and Boyd from their semicircle next to the kitchen island, their arms crossed against their chests. Scott and Allison are MIA, but that’s not a surprise – they’re both MIA a lot these days while they try and figure out who they are, where they fit into everything, how they fit together. If they can even fit together anymore.
Stiles falters, looks down at his watch out of reflex. He’s not late, right?
He knows he’s not late.
“Hey guys,” he says slowly as he reaches behind himself, yanks the door closed. “What’s up?”
All eyes look to Derek, watch him expectantly, but Derek’s eyes are fixed on Stiles, mouth set in a line, and Stiles feels like he’s in one of those dreams he gets sometimes where he shows up in the hallway at school naked and he can’t move while a group of supremely hot people stare him down, measure him, and analyze every last part of him only to ultimately laugh and turn their backs on him. Lately the passel of hot people has been replaced by a single hot person – Derek – who measures him, judges him, and finds him wanting every time, and Stiles doesn’t need to consult a dream dictionary to know what the hell that means.
He’s always devastated Stiles a little bit.
“You didn’t change the time of the meeting again or something, right?” he asks when the heavy, expectant silence drags on too long, when he just can’t take it anymore. He pulls out his phone, unlocks it and pulls up his text messages just to double check he hadn’t missed an updated meeting time.
“You’re not late,” Derek says, his voice softer than it has any right to be, and finally looks away from Stiles. “Let’s get started.”
Stiles slowly starts making his way to the couches where everyone else is congregating but stops, flinches when he sees Talia stop next to Derek. She reaches out a hand and tries to touch him but her hand only moves like it’s going through air, and she lets out a sob, pulls her hand back and clutches it to her chest. Derek is totally oblivious and Stiles winces, turns his head away as his stomach lurches.
It’s so fucking unfair, all of it.
Derek is watching him again, eyebrows drawn down and Stiles shakes his head, walks over and drops down onto the couch in the last remaining space: sandwiched between Jackson and the arm.
“Sorry,” he says and Derek watches him for another long moment before he turns away and starts talking to everyone about a training schedule, something Stiles can tune out because he knows it doesn’t concern him. He isn’t a wolf, after all.
Instead he tunes into his ghosts. Zeke is quiet and watchful as always, leaned up against a wall as he keeps watch over Ellen. Ellen is pacing by the windows again, looking out over the preserve, but she seems fairly calm right now, quiet, so he looks at Talia instead who is watching Derek – and occasionally Peter – as she shudders in shaky breath after shaky breath, ghostly tears rolling down her cheeks, and Stiles knew this would be hard, he did, but this is way worse. Like he’s feeling the ache of each one of her breaths rattling his rib cage, breaking his own heart in two.
And then she starts talking.
She starts calling out things to Derek that she wants him to know, things she never got to say, getting louder and louder and more desperate and more insistent when Stiles doesn’t immediately start talking to her or for her – he’s not sure which, maybe both – and he wants to help her, he does. He doesn’t want to just sit here like an asshole while she’s suffering. But there’s nothing he can do for her. He can’t just stand up in the middle of the pack meeting and yell out, “hey guess what, Derek? Your dead mom’s here and she wants you to know a few things. Cool?” So he clenches his hand into his thigh and keeps his eyes on Derek even though he can’t hear him at all over the increasing volume of Talia’s voice, and tries not to wince even though his head has started pounding again like someone is playing a bass drum in his head, keeping perfect fucking rhythm.
Thump thump thump thump thump.
He probably would’ve managed to make it through the whole meeting that way – head throbbing along to its rhythm, Talia pleading with him desperately – if Ellen hadn’t chosen just that moment to throw her head back and let out the loudest, most piercing scream imaginable.
Stiles shoots up off the couch with a sucked in breath, clutching at his head with one hand, his eyes watering as Ellen continues to scream near the windows.
Shit. It feels like someone just shoved a hot spike into his head.
He shakes off someone’s hand and staggers toward the door to the loft. He just needs some fresh air, some quiet. He needs to get out of here. He needs to breathe.
He yanks open the door but a hand grabs him by the arm. He tries to shake it off but it doesn’t work and he finds himself spun around to face Derek, eyes round, eyebrows canted. Stiles blinks but Ellen is still screaming and he can’t focus, he can’t focus, he can’t fucking focus.
Then there are hands on his face holding his head steady and Stiles tries weakly to get away but Derek doesn’t let him, hands holding him firmly in place.
“Stiles, what the hell is going on?”
“Nothing,” he says as he tries to push away Derek’s hands again. “I’ve just had this massive headache all day, and I took something but it didn’t help and it’s getting worse and I just need to go.”
“Is it a concussion?”
His heart does a double step. “What? No.”
And that’s true, as far as it goes, even if he can’t stop his traitorous heart from pretending otherwise. It isn’t a concussion, not this time.
“I know what happened in practice. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?”
Jackson told him what happened in practice?
Gentle fingers feather through his hair and over his skull and Stiles lets himself lean into them for just a moment, lets himself take a little comfort in them before he comes back to himself, shoves them away and takes a step back, avoiding Derek’s eyes. “I’m sure. It’s just a massive headache and it’s getting worse by the minute. Just my human sensibilities rearing their ugly head again.”
He gives an awkward, stilted laugh.
“I need to go. I’ll ask Lydia later for the meeting notes.”
He starts to step through the door but stops when Derek puts his hand on his arm one more time, not holding, just resting: a clear message that Stiles can shove Derek away again if he needs to, if he wants to. Stiles doesn’t want either of those things.
“Stiles, are you sure you’re okay?”
Stiles looks up from Derek’s hand on his arm to meet Derek’s eyes.
“Sure,” he says, even though what he wants to say is no. No, I’m not okay. I’m not okay. How could I fucking possibly be okay when I’ve had a headache for six months and I don’t know how long it’s been since I got a full night’s sleep and your mom is standing right next to you and wants to talk to you and even though I really fucking want to, I can’t tell you about it. I can’t tell you about any of it because all I want is for you to believe me and you won’t believe me and that fucking sucks so no, okay? No.
I’m not okay.
But he can’t say any of those things, no matter how much he wants to. He can’t.
Derek’s hand drops.
The drive downtown is calm and quiet and with the help of some deep breaths, a totally silent car, and a cool breeze hitting his face through the window – not to mention several more Advil – Stiles starts to feel a little less manic, a little less frantic. It’s basically the first time he’s been alone in months and he rolls his shoulders, sinks into it, feels his headache start to recede a little.
Sweet, sweet silence.
He stops off at Carlo’s to grab dinner for himself and his dad, drops his dad’s off on his desk with a note when Tara tells him his dad is interviewing someone and can’t be disturbed and then heads out, hoping he can get an hour or so of blessed quiet at home before the ghosts track him down again.
No such luck: they’re already hovering around his car. Though thanks be, at least Ellen has stopped screaming.
Talia hasn’t stopped talking, though.
“You left,” she says chidingly, and Stiles shakes his head, hops into the Jeep and moves his dinner from the passenger seat to the floor so Talia won’t sit in his food. He has no idea if ghostly emanations will even do anything to it, but it’s not like he wants to test that out today.
He just wants to eat his chicken parm in peace and quiet.
He starts the car and waits while they all slide in, lets the Jeep idle.
“You left,” she says again, much more harshly, and Stiles stares out through the windshield at the buff stucco of the sheriff’s station wall and takes in a breath, his hands clenching the steering wheel.
“Yep,” he says.
“That is my son and my brother.”
“I just wanted to be near them, I just wanted to talk to them. I want to know they’re okay.”
Stiles is keenly aware of what she wants. He is.
“Then why would you do that? Why would you do something so cruel? Why would you leave when I barely had a chance to even see them? Why would you leave when you knew we couldn’t stay there without you?”
He didn’t know that, actually. But it certainly explains a few things. They aren’t drawn to their old lives. For some stupid cosmic joke of a reason, it’s Stiles they’re drawn to.
“How could you be so inconsiderate?”
Oh, no. That does it.
He whirls on her. “Me? How could I be so inconsiderate? How about you, huh? How about all of you.”
He clenches his jaw and it hurts his head even more, makes it start up its drumbeat of a throb again, but he doesn’t care. Stiles has been so fucking nice about all the bullshit these ghosts have put him through for the last few months and he’s done.
“All I do is help every single last one of you, and what do I get in return? I get walked in on in the shower. I get yelled at when I’m having dinner with my dad. I’ve had a headache for six straight months that I can’t shake because I never get enough sleep. And I never get enough sleep because you guys are always waking me up. I get it – you’re basically in purgatory, and that sucks. But you know what else sucks? Giving everything I have to help every single last one of you, and having you shit all over me in thanks.”
“Stiles,” she says as her eyes widen, as they glance past him over his shoulder.
“No. No Stiles. I’ve had enough. So please, just shut up for once, and let me drive home in silence. You owe me that, at least.”
A gentle knock comes on his window and Stiles freezes for a minute then shuts his eyes, turns slowly in his seat and grips the wheel with both hands at 10 and 2. He takes a long, deep breath then reaches over and slowly rolls down the window, staring pointedly out the front windshield the whole time. It’d be too much to hope that it’s Tara or Parrish knocking on his window, right? Checking to make sure he’s okay?
“Stiles,” Derek says, and Stiles heaves a sigh.
Yep, definitely too much to hope.
“Derek,” he says, his voice carefully calm and measured. “What are you doing here?”
He holds up a plastic bag with a Styrofoam carton inside. “Picking up dinner from Carlo’s.”
“Ah. Great minds then.”
“I got the chicken parmesan.”
“Good choice. That’s their best dish.”
“I know. You’ve mentioned that before.”
Stiles swallows, clenches his jaw to keep his breathing even. Judging by the sudden downtick in Derek’s eyebrows, it hasn’t worked.
“Stiles,” he says, his hand clenched onto the top of Stiles’ door as he leans into the car. “You would tell me if everything wasn’t okay, right? You wouldn’t keep it from me.”
“I told you I would.”
He shakes his head, eyes intent. “No, that’s not exactly what you said.”
“Sorry, Derek,” he says and plasters on a smile he knows looks fake as he stares pointedly down at Derek’s hand. “I gotta go.”
Derek pauses then nods, gets the hint and pulls away, removes his hand and takes a step back from the Jeep, watching Stiles as he backs out of the space and drives down the street. When Stiles looks back through his rearview mirror Derek is still standing there in the street watching Stiles drive away from him, plastic bag hanging from his fingertips.
The car is quiet all the way back to Stiles’ house, quiet until he pulls into the driveway, shuts off the ignition, grabs his dinner and his backpack from the floor at Talia’s feet.
“No,” Zeke says firmly in his raspy baritone, “you leave him be.”
“Leave him be,” he says, tone allowing no protest.
Stiles trudges into the house alone, yanks the front door closed behind him. He sets himself up at the kitchen table and eats his chicken parm, now lukewarm but still good, methodically cutting it into small, even pieces before he spears the first one. Then he goes upstairs and takes a shower, changes into pajamas even though it’s only about 7, throws his clothes into his hamper, starts a load of laundry. He shuts his window, puts his phone on silent, and gets through his homework: moving from Calculus problem sets to a Chem lab write up to Spanish questions. Everything he does is measured and quiet and calm, the first night of these he’s had in a long time, and his headache is finally starting to loosen its grip a little bit, starting to fade away when he finally looks up from his homework.
He walks downstairs, locks the front door, checks the windows. The house around him is quiet and dark, no ghosts in sight, and Stiles closes his eyes, tilts his head slowly to the right then to the left to stretch his neck and takes a deep breath. Then he takes another one, and another, and another, and falls into the silence, lets it surround him for the first time in ages before walking upstairs on quiet feet, and getting into bed.
Stiles sucks in a quick breath as he comes awake, whacking the back of a hand on his headboard when his arm flails out. He orients himself, blinking at the morning light and the gentle breeze coming in through his window, blinks at his dad standing in his doorway, watching him with amusement.
“Hey.” He clears his throat. “Morning, pops. What’s up?”
“Dead to the world, huh?” he asks, his lips tipping up in a wry smile.
“Something like that,” Stiles says, and sits up. If only he knew. “What time is it?”
“Going on nine.” He shakes his head. “Man I miss those days when I could sleep for ages.”
Stiles huffs a laugh. Yeah. Him too. “What’s up?”
“I would’ve let you sleep but I have to go in today, and I wanted to check in with you.”
“Check in with me?”
“Yeah,” he says and nods, slips his hands into his pockets as he takes a step into Stiles’ room. “Tara mentioned when she saw you last night you seemed a little…off. Everything okay?”
Stiles scrubs a hand over the back of his head, feels his stomach clench. At least he knows his dad can’t read the uptick in his heartbeat the way Derek can. Makes lying a hell of a lot easier. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. I just had this headache. Wasn’t feeling great.”
He nods slowly, eyes him a moment. “Feeling better now?”
“Yep. Totally good. I slept a bunch last night. That helped.”
“Okay.” Another slow nod. “You got any plans today?”
“Uh...not a lot. I was just going to help a friend with something,” he says, picturing Ellen and her dirty yellow dress.
“Alright…” he says with another nod. “See you later, kiddo.” He raps his knuckles once against the doorframe as he leaves. “Glad you’re feeling better.”
“Thanks!” Stiles calls out, stretching as he stands from his bed, and nearly walks into a chair sitting close to the side of his bed. He stumbles to the side, stares at it a moment. He’s pretty sure he didn’t leave that there last night.
He’s pretty sure he closed his window last night too.
He shakes his head, steps over to his desk and opens his laptop, pulling up the sheriff’s department’s internal server. Once he’s in, it doesn’t take him long to find an unsolved missing person’s case for Ellen Cunningham from April in 1975 – amazing what you can do when you have a name to work with. According to the report, she never made it home after meeting some friends at the library, even though she only lived a few blocks away. And something else: she had an older sister. Karen.
Stiles does a little more digging online, looking for Karen. And this is where he gets lucky: she still goes by Karen Cunningham and she still lives in town, in the house Karen and Ellen grew up in.
He pulls on the first clothes he can find that he knows are clean, hops down the stairs. He needs to find his ghosts, get going on his new discovery.
Stiles stops at the base of the stairs and blinks at Zeke, surprised, but gives a nod back when Zeke nods, flicks the brim of his hat with one finger.
“Good morning, Stiles,” Talia says and stands from her spot on the couch. “How did you sleep?”
“Better than I have in months. Thanks,” he says. “Have you guys been down here all night?”
She nods. “Close enough, but far enough away to give you your much needed space.”
He winces. “Yeah...uh, sorry I yelled at you. I’ve been frustrated for a while, and I shouldn’t have taken that out on you.”
She shakes her head. “No, you were right. We have been selfish with you, all of us. We need to remember that even though we’re not alive anymore, you are. And we need to respect that. We may need to be heard, but we need to listen too.”
He has a feeling he would’ve liked knowing Talia when she was alive – it would’ve been amazing to see her as an Alpha, watching over her pack.
“Okay,” he says as he heads into the kitchen, grabs a bowl and spoon from the cupboard and a box of cereal from the pantry. “Good news. I found Ellen’s sister.”
He nods as he grabs the milk from inside the door of the fridge, pours some in his bowl and puts the jug away. “She lives in the same house they grew up in as kids. So as soon as I finish this,” he says, pointing down at his bowl with his spoon, “we’re going to go see her.” Stiles takes a bite of his cereal, chews and ducks his head so that he’s looking Ellen in the eye. He waits until she finally makes eye contact, then says, “Let’s see if we can’t get a step closer to helping you move on, huh? Get you somewhere nicer?”
She blinks big, owlish eyes at him.
Karen’s house is on a tree-lined street that ends in a cul-de-sac, abutting one edge of the preserve. Stiles brings the Jeep to a stop behind a set of trash cans, turns off the engine and watches a group of kids at the end of the street laugh and shout as they play a game of street hockey, slapping the blue ball into a net pushed up to the driveway of the furthest house.
“So how do you do this part?”
Stiles shrugs, looks over at her.
“It depends. Sometimes I write a letter and pretend like it was lost. Sometimes I write an email. Once I helped this grandma who loved making these lemon curd cupcakes with her grandson. It was her favorite thing. So she taught me how to make them, and I made him a dozen and left them on his porch with an anonymous note that said ‘Your grandma taught me how to make these, so I thought you’d like to have them one last time.’ They probably weren’t as good as hers,” he says.
“I’m sure they were wonderful.”
He pauses then gets out of the Jeep, starts walking up the flagstone pathway to Karen’s front door.
“So what are you going to do here?” she asks as she steps up next to him on the porch.
Stiles nods to the front window where a dream catcher is hanging next to crystals and prisms, where a stained glass sun and multi-colored mandala rest side by side. “I’m going to tell her the truth.”
“You think she’ll believe you?”
“Maybe,” Stiles says, and knocks on the front door. “Hopefully. She strikes me as a true believer in the weird and unexplained.”
He shoots her a wry smile as he hears footsteps walk toward them.
“There aren’t very many of them, you know. True believers. I wish there were. It makes my job a lot easier. And it’s nice to get a break from the lying.”
The door swings open and a gray haired woman in an ombre purple flowing top and pants appears in front of them in her bare feet, silver rings on her fingers, chipped pale green polish on her toenails.
“Yes?” she asks with a frown.
“Are you Karen Cunningham?”
“Yes,” she says hesitantly, eyes him.
Stiles curls in his shoulders, shoves his hands in his pockets as he tries to look as non-threatening as possible. Just an everyday, absolutely innocent high school student who’s been seeing her dead sister for the past couple days. “My name is Stiles. I have a message from your sister Ellen.”
She stares at him open mouthed for almost a minute before she comes back to herself, steps back and opens the door wide to let him in. She swallows, says with a halting voice, “Please. Come in.”
The inside of Karen’s home looks right out of the 70s with its rust colored shag carpet and mustard wallpaper, and he imagines nothing has been done to it since Ellen walked out the door and never came back. A place stuck in a time warp, a house and a family hoping one day their lost girl would return.
Stiles doubts this is what they imagined.
He takes a seat across from Karen on an ugly avocado colored, floral print couch, leans forward and braces his arms on his knees.
Karen sucks in a breath, steels herself. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Stiles says softly.
She nods to herself continuously, like a nervous tick, as she says, “I had a feeling. I did. All along. The police, they said they found no evidence someone took her, that she probably just ran off. That sometimes girls just did that. But I knew she wouldn’t have. Not my Ellen.” She ducks her head, swallows, then looks back up with a deep breath, squares her shoulders. “Someone hurt her the day she disappeared, didn’t they?”
“She hasn’t said much, but I think so, yeah.”
Karen nods and Stiles licks his lips, looks over at Ellen who’s hovering near Karen, watching her with an open, almost happy expression on her face. It makes his stomach hurt.
“She’s wearing a yellow sundress with tiny white flowers and these…fluttery sleeves?”
Karen sucks in a breath, claps a hand over her mouth as tears come to her eyes. After a moment she shakes her head, drops her hand. “That’s what she was wearing the day she disappeared. The funny thing is it wasn’t even her dress,” she says through a shaky half laugh. “It was mine. But she loved borrowing it. She said it made her feel grown up.”
Stiles nods. “She wants you to know she loves you, and she misses you.”
She nods back. “I miss her too. Every day.”
“You can talk to her if you want. She’s right there next to you.”
Her eyes widen and she immediately looks to her left. “She is?”
“She is. Talk to her. She probably won’t say anything – she hasn’t been speaking, really – but she’s listening to you, watching you. She’ll hear you.”
Stiles stands and walks away, his back to them to give Karen some privacy. It’s the best he can do in this situation but he figures she deserves that, at least.
He wanders across the room as Karen talks to her sister, eyes bouncing over framed photos on the wall, on the bookshelves filled with new age books and classics and cookbooks, to the photos sitting on the mantel. He stops, eyes widening, when he sees an old black and white photo of a man in a vest and a cowboy hat, eyes piercing through the camera. Zeke. It’s Zeke.
He picks up the photo and holds it in his hand, looks from the photo over to Zeke and back again, as if checking to see if his eyes aren’t fooling him. Zeke watches him across the room with a measured look, perfectly still in his spot against the wall next to the front door.
“Karen, sorry,” he says as he holds the picture up. “But how do you know this man?”
“Oh. Uncle Zeke?”
Stiles lifts his eyebrows. “He’s your uncle?”
His eyes dart to Zeke then back to Karen.
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s just what we’ve always called him. He isn’t related to the family.”
“Then why is he on your mantel?”
“Because he has to be,” she says, matter of fact. “It’s a family rule. No matter what, Zeke always has to be displayed in a place of honor.”
She says it like something she memorized long ago and never shook. Like her ABCs, or her times tables.
“Why?” Stiles asks, looking back down at the picture.
“I don’t know,” she says, and shrugs. “I’m sure there’s a story but it wasn’t passed down to me. Or if it was, I’ve completely forgotten it. Why? Do you know him? Is he one of your…”
She trails off but Stiles gets the picture and nods.
Stiles takes a step back, surprised. “What? No. Zeke has to be passed down in your family.”
She smiles at him sadly. “I’m the last living Cunningham, Stiles. There won’t be any more after me. And I know the rule has always said that he has to stay in the family, but I think what they really meant is that someone always had to take care of him. Display him, remember him. I’m pretty sure that’s you, honey. I think he belongs with you.”
He stutters, looks back down at the photo before looking back up. “Are...are you sure?”
She nods. “I’m sure.”
She gives him a little half smile that Stiles returns, and he looks over at Zeke one more time, standing by the front door.
“Chicago,” Ellen says in a broken, disused voice, staring intently at her sister.
“What?” Stiles asks, head whipping to her and eyes growing, but Ellen doesn’t say it again, just keeps staring at Karen like she’s hoping she’ll finally hear her, see her.
“What?” Karen asks, looking back and forth from Stiles to the space inhabited by the ghost of her dead sister. “What is it?”
“Ellen said something.”
“She did?” she asks, perching forward eagerly on the couch. “What did she say?”
“Um…Chicago? Does that mean anything to you?”
Clearly it does because Karen immediately clasps her hand over her mouth and tears start streaming from her eyes, down her cheeks and over her fingers.
“I can’t believe she...” She shakes her head. “She’s really here, isn’t she?” she asks shakily from behind her hand, crying through her disbelieving joy. “I mean, when you described her dress I knew you weren’t lying, but...she’s really here? She’s really here with me?”
“Yeah,” Stiles says softly. “Yeah, she is.”
Karen nods, sobbing, as she smiles at the space next to her where the ghost of her little sister is sitting, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Thank you, Stiles. Thank you. Thank you for bringing my sister back to me.”
Stiles waves a hand out to Karen’s called out goodbye, and when he hears the door shut behind him he starts down the porch steps and onto the flagstone pathway, taking a bite of the cookie she’d forced on him, nestled in a napkin that says Happy Retirement, Bob!
Stiles wonders who Bob is, if he’s enjoying his retirement.
The cookie is good, crunchy and a little salty and almond-y, and Stiles finishes it off and wipes his fingers then stuffs Bob’s napkin in the pocket of his chinos.
“That was awful,” Talia says, and Stiles looks at her, swallows when he sees the stricken look on her face. “But also a little incredible?” He ducks his head at the awed confusion in her voice. “Is it like that every time?”
“No,” Stiles says softly. “Just sometimes. Just when they believe me.” He shrugs. “There aren’t a lot of those.”
She nods, pauses, then turns mothering eyes on him. “You need to share this with someone.”
“I shared it with you.”
His protest sounds weak, even to his own ears.
“Someone living. You can’t keep doing this by yourself.”
“I’m doing fine.”
Stiles shakes his head, looks away, spies Ellen standing as far away from them as possible, watching them from the tree line.
“I think there’s something going on with Ellen.”
“Look,” he says, gesturing with both his hand and a jerk of his head. “I think she wants us to follow her.”
Before Talia can respond Stiles takes off after Ellen, bridging the gap between them quickly with long strides. He lets her stay a little in front of him, follows her through the trees, ducking and weaving as they cross the boundary line for the preserve. Stiles throws a glance over at Talia but she’s focused on Ellen, eyes fixed in front of her. His eyes do find Zeke’s though, trailing behind them.
They walk for another ten minutes or so before Ellen comes to an abrupt stop in the center of a small clearing, ringed in trees. She looks down intently at the ground, unmoving even when Stiles says her name.
“Stiles,” Talia says, but Stiles holds up a hand, spins in a slow circle as he looks around at the leafy trees, at this small secluded clearing with its grass lit up by the sun, shining down hot and bright at the edge of Ellen’s bare, dirty toes.
He feels his stomach sink, like someone’s dropped an anchor into it.
“You’re buried here, aren’t you?”
Ellen finally looks up at him, unblinking and solemn, and Stiles nods, squares his shoulders and sets his jaw.
“I’m going to go get a shovel.”
He starts to head back the way they came but stops, turns, when he hears a distressed noise behind him, like a wounded animal pleading for help. Ellen is standing there, face screwed up in distress, hands clenching and unclenching in front of her waist in repeated motions as she sucks in hard breaths she doesn’t need to take, Talia standing right next to her, her hand on her shoulder.
“We’re coming right back, okay? I’m not going to leave you here. I’m not going to leave your body here,” he says. “I just need to go get a shovel.”
He waits until she nods back and Talia urges her forward before Stiles turns one more time and heads out of the clearing, breaking into a jog. The faster he gets back, the faster they can get her out of the ground. She’s been there long enough.
When he gets to the Jeep he waits a minute for them, rubs his forehead when he feels his usual low grade headache returning. Guess one night of uninterrupted sleep wasn’t enough to fix that problem.
He closes his eyes, keeps rubbing, takes a deep breath.
“You still have a headache?”
Stiles jumps, eyes flying open as he whacks his elbow against the doorframe. He swears under his breath and rubs his elbow as he eyes Talia in the passenger seat who’s looking at him through narrowed eyes of her own.
“It’s been my bff for the last six months. Why would it leave me now?” He straightens, pulls on his seat belt, looks in the rearview mirror to find Zeke and Ellen sitting there, watching him. He turns on the car, says, “Everybody buckle up.”
From the back seat Zeke lifts his eyebrows.
“Or, you know...don’t. Because you’re ghosts. Obviously,” he says and sighs as he pulls quickly away from the curb, hangs a u-turn and heads back down Karen Cunningham’s street and to home. He mutters to himself, “As if you didn’t know that already.”
When he reaches his house he parks caddywhompus in the driveway and hops out, leaving the door hanging open as he snags a shovel from the shed out back, fills up a water bottle from the cabinet, and throws them in the back of the Jeep, doing a quick check for all three of his buddies before he starts the car up again and heads back toward Karen’s house. The drive is quiet, and Stiles finds his eyes flicking up to the rearview mirror every few seconds, checking on Ellen. The closer they get back to her burial place, the calmer and more settled she seems to get. Stiles’ stomach on the other hand is clenching, turning over.
He’s never had to dig up a body before, and he has no idea what he’s going to find.
“Stiles,” Talia says and Stiles hums, eyes breaking away from the rearview mirror to glance over at her. Her eyes are doing their best to bore into his skull, and he immediately looks away.
Her voice is quietly forceful, slow and measured when she says, “I’m worried about you. You can’t keep going on like this. You need to tell someone what’s been going on. You need to tell Derek.”
Stiles brings the Jeep to a stop a little further down from where he’d last parked on Karen’s street, puts it in park, turns off the engine. He watches as Ellen makes her way over to the tree line, as Zeke follows her.
Jesus, of course he has to tell Derek. He wasn’t about to blow him off with a letter or an email or a box of cupcakes, not when his mom is standing right here. He can’t pretend with Derek the way he can with other people, and it would be shitty of him to try. And maybe he could have told Talia that, but he wasn’t ready to, not that that matters anymore. His countdown clock has almost hit zero.
He’s been biding his time with Ellen, he knows that, grateful she showed up first, grateful that she unknowingly gave him a Tell Derek Everything reprieve. Focusing on her made it easier to ignore his own problem looming over him.
He’s been helping people move on for months, helping them get some resolution in their lives, but this is the first time it’s ever been personal, the first time he’s ever had to pass on a message to someone who matters to him.
So yeah, he’s balking a little bit here. Give him a break.
“You should have told him a long time ago. He could’ve been helping you for weeks.”
He knows she doesn’t mean to sound so harsh, not really. The answer just seems so simple to her, simple in a way it isn’t for Stiles.
“Until you showed up, I had no way to prove it to him.”
He shakes his head.
“The entire supernatural community believes ghosts are basically this undefinable, hazy thing, and Derek was raised by you to believe that ghosts were more rumor than fact – something his own uncle confirmed no more than a couple days ago, I might add. So if I’d gone up to Derek and said ‘Guess what, buddy? I’m seeing dead people’, why would he have believed me when everything else would have told him he shouldn’t? Why would he have believed me when I had no concrete proof?”
She pauses then smiles at him, eyes shining.
“Because it’s you, Stiles,” she says, reaching out a hand to touch him on the cheek then dropping her hand when she realizes she can’t. “Because it’s you.”
Stiles meets her eyes for one long, aching moment before he shakes himself, gets out and grabs the shovel and water bottle out of the back. He strides over to Ellen, lets her lead the way one more time to her burial place as he tries not to think about what Talia just said and fails.
God, him and Derek, it’s just…they’re just…
He shakes his head, focuses on Ellen in front of him, on her feet as they stride through the woods.
They’re not anything is the problem, no matter what Talia says. No matter what Stiles wants.
They make it to the clearing again and Stiles drops his water bottle at the base of one of the trees then steps up next to Ellen.
He waits for her to acknowledge him with a nod before he nods back, uses his foot to push the blade down into the earth, knuckles white around the grip as he lifts and throws the first scoop of dirt off to the side. “One down,” he says, and immediately pushes the blade back into the ground.
He works methodically but the ground is packed hard and the sun is hot, and Stiles isn’t in the best shape for this. He still needs a nap – or thirty – to be right again and his headache is growing with every push of the shovel into the dirt, every moment the sun beats down on the top of his head. So he takes frequent breaks, rubbing the sweat off his forehead with the edge of his t-shirt and taking swigs of the water bottle that’s now at least half empty.
“I’m sorry,” he says and looks at Ellen, panting as he bends over his shovel. “I know this is taking more time than you hoped it would. But we’ll get there, okay? I promise.”
“Who are you talking to?”
Stiles startles and turns, head whipping around as he nearly drops the shovel to find Derek standing at the edge of the little clearing watching Stiles intently, a deep frown on his face.
Derek takes a few slow, measured steps closer and repeats himself. “Who are you talking to?”
“What?” He asks, stuttering. “Nobody. Myself. You know,” he says, laughing nervously, “the way everybody talks to themselves.”
Derek looks decidedly unhappy with his answer, lips turning down into a deep set frown, and Stiles knows he doesn’t believe him.
Derek grips Stiles’ hand over the handle of the shovel, firm but not painful and slightly loose, as if to tell Stiles he can shake Derek off whenever he wants.
Jackson did that too, after lacrosse practice. Held him the same way. It’s like they’re both too careful with him, too practiced. Almost as if they’ve talked about it. How to Handle Stiles, or: Managing Your Pack Human.
Stiles grips the handle of the shovel tighter.
“What’s going on with you, Stiles?”
He shakes his head, grits his teeth, squares his shoulders. “Something’s wrong. Why won’t you tell me what it is?”
Talia steps up next to Derek, says insistently, “This is the perfect opportunity, Stiles. What are you waiting for? Tell him. Tell him what’s been going on.”
Stiles shakes his head and Derek’s hand tightens just the smallest bit on his, just enough to make Stiles look at him. It’s incongruous and slightly off putting, seeing Talia standing there next to Derek, like some united front in interrogating Stiles that Derek isn’t aware exists, and the problem is this isn’t the perfect opportunity. There’s never going to be a perfect opportunity. Why doesn’t she get that?
Derek’s eyes are wide and intent on his and he says, pleadingly, “I can’t fix it if you don’t tell me what’s wrong. Stiles, trust me. Please.”
Stiles’ stomach sinks at the sound of his voice, at the idea that somehow Derek thinks Stiles doesn’t trust him, which isn’t it. That isn’t it at all.
“Stiles, he’s never needed proof from you,” Talia says, and his eyes flick to her one more time. “You know that, don’t you? Somewhere deep inside, you know that’s true. You don’t have to justify anything to him. Just...tell him. I promise he’ll believe you.”
Stiles doesn’t think that’s true, not really – how could it be true? - but he’s so tired and his head aches and he’s just...he can’t do this anymore. He can’t. He can’t hold it all in and pretend he’s okay when he’s really, really not and he can’t keep taking on other people’s problems like solving them will solve his own.
So he loosens his hand on the shovel, lets out a soft, achy laugh and looks Derek right in his gorgeous, intense eyes and trusts him with the truth, even though he knows he’s probably punching himself a one way ticket to Eichen House.
“I see dead people.”
It’s the shittiest impersonation of Haley Joel Osment ever.
“Ghosts,” he says, when Derek says nothing. “I see ghosts. See them, hear them, talk to them. Help them move on.”
He lets out another shaky laugh because their shared world is pretty full up with absurdities at this point but this? Somehow this might be the most absurd.
Well, maybe not. Jackson is a fucking lizard.
He barks out a manic laugh. “I see dead people!”
Derek’s whole body seems to unclench at once. His face softens and his hand loosens over Stiles’ as his shoulders lose all their tension. It all falls away from him, like an unbearably heavy cloak. “Okay.”
Stiles stutters. “Oh…okay?”
He nods. “Okay.”
Stiles shifts his weight from one foot to the other, clenches his fingers on the handle under the heat of Derek’s hand. “You don’t think I’m crazy?”
“No,” he says, calm and assured.
“You…you believe me?” Stiles says and licks his lips, and he can’t keep the shaky, relieved surprise out of his voice. No matter how many times Talia told Stiles that Derek would believe him, that she knew her son, he still didn’t believe her. His heart isn’t equipped to take that kind of leap.
“Of course I believe you,” he says, intent eyes boring into his. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?”
“You don’t like me,” he says, and it sounds petulant and childish and confused, but he also knows it’s true. “You think I’m annoying.”
“You’re a teenager. All teenagers are annoying. And I have a pack full of them.”
“No, but you’re always so growly around me. I piss you off.”
Derek shakes his head.
“You don’t...” He shakes his head again as if he’s clearing it, says, “We both have people we’d do just about anything to see again. You wouldn’t lie to me about this.”
He wouldn’t, that’s the thing. He could never do that to Derek – make a joke out of his pain. He just can’t believe Derek knows that.
He catches Talia smiling at them wistfully – well, mostly at Derek – out of the corner of his eye.
“And yeah…you piss me off a lot, but that’s usually because you have a habit of putting yourself in danger when there’s someone stronger right next to you. When I’m standing right next to you.”
“Right,” Stiles says with a grimace. “Because I’m human.”
“Stop doing that,” he says harshly, but softens his words with a squeeze of Stiles’ hand that makes Stiles’ breath catch a bit. “Stop assuming you know what I’m going to say, and stop throwing yourself in front of me every time we’re in danger like you feel you have something to prove.”
Stiles swallows, keeps his mouth shut.
“My dad was human, Stiles. So were some of my cousins and one of my aunts. The Hale pack has always had humans, and it’s made us stronger and better.” His fingers tighten. “None of them were weak, and neither are you. But you break, you scar, you bleed. And it makes me crazy every time you act like that doesn’t matter.”
“Why?” Stiles asks softly, his heart in his throat.
Derek looks at him a second. “You’re the smartest person I know and you can’t figure it out?”
He shakes his head, looks away and down at the ground, down at Ellen’s partially dug up grave.
Stiles isn’t even sure what he’s asking Derek not to say.
“I’m not good at-” Stiles looks up as Derek shakes his head at himself, clenches his jaw and then shakes his head again and squares up, looks Stiles right in the eye. “My family died, and it almost destroyed me, Stiles. If you died, it would.”
Stiles swallows, his mouth dry, his heart beating hard in his chest. He knows Derek can hear it. The entire county can probably hear it, werewolf or not.
“It would destroy me. I’d never recover.”
He licks his lips, gobsmacked.
“You’ve never...you’ve never said anything. You never...”
“You just turned eighteen three months ago, Stiles. And I wasn’t-”
He shakes his head, bites off his own words as he looks away.
He wasn’t going to be that guy, he wasn’t going to do to Stiles what Kate had done to him.
The thing is, Derek isn’t that guy. He could never be that guy. And this thing between Stiles and Derek...it’s nothing like what the fuck ever happened between Derek and Kate. Derek is not Kate, and Stiles hates that he doubts himself like that.
“I know I wasn’t the best guy when we met; I know I’m not the easiest guy to be around. But I wanted you to like me, to respect me. To be...” He swallows hard before he speaks again. “I wanted you to be proud of me.”
Stiles almost cries at the naked openness on Derek’s face, at the sheer guts it’s taking for him to lay himself all out on the line right now like this, knowing full well he could be rejected. Stiles has never had that kind of guts and he doesn’t know how Derek does, not with his matched set of epically massive trust issues.
“I do. I am.”
Derek shifts, hesitant hope blooming on his face. “You are?”
Stiles nods his head, shaky, and feels the warmth spread through his body when Derek finally allows himself a smile, blinking down at the ground. And he thinks, fuck it. If Derek can do this, so can he. Once more unto the breach dear friends and all that.
So he starts listing every single thing he can think of that Derek’s done right since they met – moving into the loft and fixing it up, becoming Isaac’s guardian, teaching everyone how to come together as a pack, setting up regular pack nights with pizza and movies and shit, filling his pack with people who were just as sad and lonely and hurt and damaged as he is, trying to give them love and a family – and the more he lists, the more Derek’s face opens up, the more intent and happy his eyes get.
It’s a weird fucking place to be having a breakthrough moment about how crazy they are about each other – standing next to the unmarked grave of a long dead girl with the ghost of Derek’s dead mom looming over them, watching them benevolently – but they wouldn’t be Derek and Stiles if something weren’t at least a little fucking weird.
Stiles tips his head back and then winces when the bright sun makes his head pound a little harder and he drops his head again, blinks toward the ground.
“Do you have another headache?” Derek asks as he threads his fingers into Stiles’ hair, cups the back of his head.
Stiles closes his eyes, sighs and leans into the contact. “More like the same one? I’ve basically had the same headache for six months.”
“Six months?” he hisses. “Jesus, Stiles.”
And then Stiles is gasping softly, eyes flying open as the pain leaves him. His eyes meet Derek’s intent ones but when that gets to be too much he drops them to Derek’s arm and watches as black lines snake up over his arm and disappear underneath the pushed up sleeve of Derek’s shirt. Derek’s thumb strokes his scalp and Stiles’ heart clenches in his chest at the softness, at the comfort and familiarity of the act.
When the pain is finally gone Stiles blinks sluggish eyes as Derek removes his hand and Stiles feels his whole body unclench in relief, like his whole body had been tensed, drawn tighter and tighter with every pound of his head. It makes him stumble, as if his body can’t figure out how to control itself for a moment, but he stays standing thanks to his grip on the shovel and the grace of Derek’s arm as it wraps around him.
“I’m good. I’m good,” he says with a pat to Derek’s bicep, and Derek shakes his head and moves them over to the base of a tree, pulling Stiles’ hand off the shovel and dropping it off to the side. He urges Stiles down to the ground to sit at the base of tree, hands over his water bottle and crouches in front of him as he watches Stiles take a gulp.
Stiles wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, looks up at Derek.
“So who were you talking to when I interrupted you?”
Stiles goes to stand but Derek pushes him back down gently with a hand on the shoulder. He goes without much resistance, licking his lips as he screws the cap back down on the bottle, leans back against the trunk of the tree. God, he’s tired.
“One of my ghosts.”
Derek looks back over his shoulder briefly at the hole in the ground before turning back to Stiles.
“They’re buried here, aren’t they? On my land.”
It’s an easy leap to make, Stiles guesses. After all, he does talk to dead people. The answer sort of presents itself.
“She,” he says, because that feels important. When Derek’s eyebrows tick up in question, Stiles pulls out his phone, brings up the picture he snapped of her yearbook photo and hands the phone over to him, resting his head back against the tree. “Her name is Ellen Cunningham. She disappeared in nineteen seventy-five when she was fifteen.”
“And she’s been buried here the whole time?” Derek asks, eyes fixed on the phone in his hand.
“Yeah,” Stiles says. “I think so.”
Derek nods then looks up, hands the phone back to Stiles and stands, walks over to the shovel and picks it up, pushing the blade into the dirt with his foot.
“What are you doing?” Stiles asks and goes to stand.
Derek motions him back down with a raise of the eyebrows and a pointed look that doesn’t ease until Stiles sits back down, leans back against the tree.
“I’m digging her up. And you’re resting,” he says when Stiles makes a move to stand again.
“I’ve got this, Stiles,” he says, shovel braced in his hand. “You need to rest.”
When Stiles makes no move to stand again Derek gives him a nod and turns his attention to the dirt, pushing the shovel into the ground, Ellen standing next to him, watching him with wide eyes as he pries up his first shovelful of dirt, tosses it off to the side. He works quickly and determinedly, carving his way into the earth, and Stiles feels his heart clench and rubs his hand over his chest.
I’ve got you. Another shovelful. I’ve got her. Another. You’re okay. Another. I promise. Another.
“You okay, Stiles?” Talia asks softly, taking a seat next to him on the ground, and Stiles nods.
He is. For the first time in a long time, yeah. He thinks he is.
A slight breeze kicks up and Stiles closes his eyes, turns his face into it and tips his head up, lets himself sink into the sturdiness of the tree behind him, lets his muscles finally fully unclench, lets himself drift off as he listens to Derek free Ellen from her prison, one shovelful of dirt at a time.
Stiles comes to with a sucked in breath, Derek crouched down in front of him, hand pulling away from Stiles’ face.
Stiles blinks repeatedly, sniffs, sits up and looks around to find the ground of the clearing behind Derek pockmarked with holes.
What the hell?
“Your dad is on his way. He should be here in a few minutes.”
Stiles shakes his head, focuses on Derek. “You called my dad? Why?”
“Because I found her, Stiles.” Stiles looks past him, to the hole he’d first started digging...how long ago now? How long was he asleep? “She was right where you said she’d be.”
Of course she was.
“So what’s with the other holes?”
He throws a glance over his shoulder before turning back. “One hole with a dead body in it looks suspicious, but multiple holes can be explained.”
He shrugs. “It’s my land. I was looking for something else when I happened upon the skull and stopped digging. And then I called the Sheriff immediately. Of course.”
“Of course,” Stiles repeats. He likes the half smile Derek gives him, something private and close. “But he’ll want to know what you were digging for.”
“I’ve got it covered,” he says, shrugging off Stiles’ concern. “I have a lot of questions.”
Stiles gives him a wry smile. “I bet you do. I probably have answers.”
Derek gives him that same wry smile back. “I know you do.”
Behind Derek something moves and Stiles looks that way to find Ellen sitting cross-legged at her hole, staring down into the depth at her own skull.
Stiles can’t see her skull from here, and he’s never been more grateful for anything in his life. The whole thing feels gruesome and too real.
“When did this start?”
Stiles tears his eyes away from Ellen and focuses back on Derek. “The day Boyd decided to be a werewolf.”
Derek furrows his eyebrows – clearly confused as to what that has to do with anything.
“You told Erica to keep me out of the way and she knocked me out with a piece of my car and threw me in a dumpster. Gave me a concussion.” He shrugs. “I’ve been seeing dead people ever since.”
“Derek!” Talia scolds, brows drawn down, and Stiles winces at the volume of her voice, at her anger.
Derek’s jaw is clenched and he looks away. “I never told her to knock you out.”
“I’ll talk to her.”
“No,” he says with a shake of his head. “Don’t.”
“Don’t,” he says. “What’s done is done you know? And I don’t want her feeling guilty about it when she was just trying to prove herself to you. She’d never forgive herself for it. You know she wouldn’t.”
There’s a long pause and then Derek says, voice pitched fierce and low, “I would’ve never asked anyone to hurt you. I would’ve never let them.”
“I know,” Stiles says easily. He was just an annoying, nosy kid, not a legit threat. And he knows Talia didn’t raise him that way. The only times Derek has hurt Stiles is when he had it coming, like when he used Derek as a sexual object without his consent and Derek slammed Stiles’ head into his steering wheel.
But that doesn’t seem to reassure Derek much, so Stiles reaches out a hand, places it on Derek’s chest. Derek’s eyes widen and find Stiles’ before they drop down to the hand on his chest. He stares at it for a long moment as if he can’t really believe it’s there before he slowly brings up a hand and lays it over Stiles’, pressing their hands together into his chest firmly, like he wants to press the weight of Stiles into his skin.
Derek looks back up at him, open and searching. “I’m sorry she hurt you.”
Stiles gives him a smile, nods, and Derek holds his gaze for a long minute then lifts their hands, places a kiss on Stiles’ open palm like a promise. Stiles lets out a long, low breath, feels his stomach clench as their eyes stay locked.
“Your dad is coming.”
Stiles sucks in a breath, shakes himself and lets Derek help him up off the ground, disentangling himself from Derek and taking a step back.
Jesus, way to throw a bucket of water on the mood.
“Sorry,” he says, but the light in his eyes says something else.
Derek can be playful. Jesus. Stiles is a dead man.
“Where is she?”
“Who?” Stiles asks. “Ellen?”
He lifts an eyebrow. “Is there another ghost here?”
“Stiles,” he says, abruptly serious, angling his body towards him. “Are there two ghosts here?”
“No.” Stiles looks over at Talia, standing nearby, watching them. He suddenly feels a little self-conscious for the asshole comment, for the private things Derek did without knowing his mother was a part of his audience. But he pushes that away when she gives him a firm nod, and he takes a deep breath and says, “There are three.”
His clock is officially at zero. Hello Doomsday.
“Three?” Derek asks, eyebrows rising to his hairline, looking around as if he can see them. “Is that normal?”
“You’re a werewolf asking your human packmate if seeing multiple dead people at a time is normal. Considering the context, that’s a pretty hilarious question.”
“You’re not just my packmate. I thought I was clear on that,” Derek says and rolls his eyes. “And you know what I mean.”
Stiles shrugs a little helplessly even as he feels the warmth blooming inside of him. “I see dead people, Derek. I wouldn’t know how to gauge normal at this point. But if you’re asking if I’ve ever had three or more ghosts at one time before the answer is yes. It happened a lot in the beginning. Doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
He shrugs. “I have a theory, but that’s it. Nothing I can prove. It’s all just been guesswork anyway, you know? There aren’t exactly resources out there to help me. I’ve basically had to feel my way through this thing.”
“So there are three with you right now.”
“Yeah.” Stiles takes a steadying breath and Talia gives him another encouraging nod, but she doesn’t have to do this, he does, and no matter what, this is going to suck. Derek’s going to feel betrayed, he’s going to feel like Stiles deliberately kept something from him, which...he sorta did. “Well, Ellen you know.” Derek nods. “Then there’s Zeke...he died sometime in the eighteen hundreds. Don’t know when, don’t know how. And for some reason he’s not ready to move on yet, so he’s been my buddy pretty much from the beginning. But he’s like the least intrusive ghost ever, so...we cohabitate pretty peacefully.”
“Okay,” Derek says with a nod, eyes peeling away to the path leading into the clearing. Stiles’ dad must be close. His eyes return to Stiles and he asks, “And who’s the third?”
“Stiles...who’s the third?”
Stiles licks his lips and Talia gives him one more nod, steps up next to Derek like somehow she can comfort him. Stiles would laugh if he didn’t feel a little like crying at the unfairness, at the absurdity. “It’s your mom.”
Derek blinks, takes a step back. “What?”
“It’s your mom.” Derek’s mouth parts and he stares at Stiles, face morphing from surprise to disbelief to sheer, abject hurt.
Stiles can’t bear to look at him anymore so he looks down at the ground instead, then off to the side to Ellen, sitting by her buried bones. And then, when he can’t bear to look at her anymore either, he matches eyes with Zeke, who’s watching him with quiet understanding he hasn’t earned.
“Were you going to tell me?” he asks quietly. “If I...were you ever going to tell me?”
“Yes,” Stiles says toward the trees like a coward. “Just...I had to help Ellen first. I have a system.”
“You have a system,” Derek says, voice flat.
Stiles doesn’t get a chance to say anything else because his dad is entering the clearing, trailed by a whole host of deputies and a crime scene unit. He does spare a glance at Derek, finds him watching Stiles’ dad approach. He steps forward to greet the Sheriff and Stiles looks back at Talia. She gives him a sympathetic, pinched smile he doesn’t want.
He can’t blame her for showing up in his life and upending everything – none of this is even a little bit her fault. But god he wants to. It’d be so much easier that way.
Derek leads Stiles’ dad over to Ellen’s partially dug grave and Stiles steps over too and the three of them stand with the toes of their shoes touching the edge, looking down at the half buried human skull that deserved a much better resting place than an anonymous spot in the preserve. None of them speak for a minute, and Stiles clenches his hands into fists inside his pockets.
“I stopped digging and called you when I saw that.”
John nods, voice measured when he says, “Doesn’t really explain why you were digging holes in the first place though.”
“I was looking for something.”
“Dad, it’s his property,” Stiles says. “It’s basically his backyard. It’s not like he owes you an explanation.”
“He does when he digs up a human skeleton, Stiles.” He looks over at his son, says, “This is the friend you were going to help?”
John lifts pointed eyebrows his way.
Oh yeah. They’ll be talking about this later. Stiles can’t wait.
“When I was thirteen I buried a wooden box out here,” Derek says. “That’s what I was looking for.”
“A wooden box?” the Sheriff repeats.
“Any particular reason why you chose to dig up this box now?”
“Yes,” he says, eyes fixed to the ground. “It has something important in it, something I wanted to show Stiles.” He looks up at John. “The only surviving picture of my whole family. I lost the rest of them in the fire and I wanted him to meet them, to know what they looked like.”
John’s eyes dance from Derek to Stiles and back to Derek again. “And you wanted to share them with Stiles because?”
Stiles grits his teeth, braces himself.
He’s eighteen so it’s not like his dad can have too many objections, but Derek is still the guy who Stiles once accused of murder, and Stiles can’t erase that from his dad’s memory. If he were him, he’d probably question it too. But Stiles hasn’t been close to that kid in a while now, and Derek is different too. Softer, calmer. He hasn’t been on John’s go-to list of suspects for a long time. His dad has to see that.
Derek works his jaw but doesn’t look away from John. “I still struggle with the fire sometimes, with thinking it was my fault. Stiles has been helping me work past that, encouraging me to talk about my family more. Encouraging me to remember them as more than a tragedy.”
And that’s...true. Sort of.
Stiles has been asking Derek about his family – little stuff here and there, stuff like how they handled full moons with the whole pack, stuff like what each of his family did in the pack, what their roles were. If there were any werewolf traditions he wasn’t aware of, like special holidays or celebrations or things they passed down. And he’s asked him what it was like to grow up in a big family – with siblings and aunts and cousins and uncles and grandparents all around him. What it was like to grow up the middle kid in between two sisters. Stiles has always wondered what that might be like, to have so many people love him that they’re barely able to fit in one room. For as long as he can remember, all the people who loved him at one time have been able to fit in a mid-priced sedan with elbow room.
Stiles basically bugged him, pestered him into answering under the guise of understanding pack dynamics better and in the beginning Derek had humored him in his particular Derek-y way, which meant a lot of raised eyebrows and disbelieving grunts. But those eyebrows and grunts eventually morphed to actual answers, in some cases with details, like the fact that Laura’s favorite cookies were oatmeal chocolate chip or that his dad’s favorite color was forest green. And then, unbelievably, he started telling Stiles stories, like the time his sister Cora pranked Peter and Peter bought her a new bike out of respect, or the time his dad once successfully outmaneuvered the Alpha of a rival pack who wanted to supersede Talia’s claim and take Alexander for his mate.
And Derek wasn’t sharing that with anyone else, just Stiles. Stiles had felt...lucky. Included.
He should’ve realized what that meant for Derek too.
“I’d forgotten about the box until Stiles and I started talking.” He huffs a laugh, but there’s no real humor behind it. “I buried it out here because my sisters were always getting into my stuff, and I wanted an ounce of privacy for once. I wanted something that was just mine.” He lifts his chin toward the direction of the burnt down Hale house. “I wish I still had that problem.”
Stiles swallows, meets Talia’s very wet eyes as she stands just in front of them, invisible to all but Stiles.
But Derek knows she’s there now. He knows she can hear him, see him.
This sucks. This all totally fucking sucks.
Stiles reaches out, rests his hand on Derek’s lower back and looks up to find his dad watching him. Stiles doesn’t look away.
“It’s been ten years since I buried the box, though,” Derek says, looking around at the ground covered in holes. “I think I forgot which clearing I buried it in.”
“Lucky you started in this one then.”
“Yeah,” Derek echoes. “Lucky.”
John nods, says gently, “If the box is here, we’ll find it son. I’ll get it back to you.”
Derek nods and thanks him and John turns and directs the crew to the exposed skull in the ground.
Stiles, Derek, and John back away as the deputies and crime scene unit take over, as they start putting up tape and setting their kits on the ground.
“I’ll be home at nine, Stiles,” he says, and holds out the shovel. “Maybe see my shovel gets put back where it belongs?”
John’s eyes flit between them both one more time before he shakes his head, turns and walks over to the deputies to supervise.
Oh yeah. They’ll definitely be having a chat later.
Derek and Stiles step back and watch until Ellen’s body is finally unearthed, just a skeleton covered in scraps of fabric from years spent unprotected in the ground. Stiles’ eyes immediately go to Ellen who is watching them all work, watching as they go over her body, as they look for clues, for anything that could tell them who might’ve done this, who might’ve buried her here where they thought no one would ever find her.
Whoever they were, they didn’t plan on werewolves. That much is true. They didn’t plan on Stiles either. And they definitely didn’t plan on Ellen herself not resting until her body was found.
Rookie fucking mistake.
“Stiles,” John says, and Stiles looks over.
John’s hands are resting on his duty belt as he watches him and Stiles knows what words are about to come next. He’s been a cop’s kid long enough.
“We’re going,” he says, and John gives him a nod but keeps his eyes on them.
That’s fair. Stiles may have been a cop’s kid all his life, but John has been Stiles’ dad for just as long. He knows nearly all Stiles’ tricks by now, all his hesitations and sleights of hand.
Stiles gives him another nod, swipes his empty water bottle off the ground and plucks at the sleeve of Derek’s shirt to get him to move, motions him with a flick of the head into the tree line. There’s nothing left for them to do anyway. They’ve started this thing, and now it’s up to his dad to finish it, to finally bring Ellen home for good.
A few yards into the tree line Stiles stops, looks back. His dad is hidden from this spot but Ellen isn’t, and neither is the bright light behind her, calling her away. Ellen is looking at him, smiling and calm for the first time, all the dirt and grime washed away. She finally looks like she did when she was alive, like the fresh-scrubbed, hopeful teenage girl who smiled at Stiles through her school photo, and Stiles feels tears prick his eyes to match hers, shining at him in the light.
Stiles smiles back, his stomach clenching.
“Stiles?” Derek asks, and Stiles reaches out a hand, grabs onto Derek’s shirt. “What is it? Is it Ellen? Is she...”
Stiles nods and watches Ellen tip her face up into the sunlight, watches as it washes over her happy face for a moment. Then she turns, steps forward in her bare feet, and walks away from all of them and into the light in her sister’s yellow flowered dress.
The walk back to Stiles’ Jeep is silent except for the sound of their footsteps and the scrape and thunk of the blade of the shovel on the ground every few seconds as Stiles uses it like a walking stick. There’s too much to say, but neither Stiles nor Derek know how to start, and Zeke and Talia seem to know it’s not their place to, not that Derek could hear them even if they did. So the four of them make it back to the Jeep without saying a word, and Stiles stows his stuff in the back, gets in, and waits for Derek to make the next move. Waits for him to get in, or walk away.
He gets in and Stiles lets out a breath, his lungs aching from holding it in.
It’s weird to have Derek sitting next to him now in the passenger side when that’s been Derek’s mom’s seat for the last couple days, but it feels right too even if Derek won’t look at him, and Stiles clenches his hands on the wheel and looks back through the rearview mirror at Zeke and Talia. Zeke is looking out the side window, quiet as always while he gives Stiles his space, but Talia is watching him, eyes boring into his through the mirror.
“Do you know what I want more than anything else in the world right now?” Talia asks softly, and Stiles give a minute shake of the head back. There are too many possible answers to that question. “I want to hold you. The both of you.” Stiles swallows, glances over at Derek whose eyes are fixed forward, staring out the Jeep’s windshield, his mouth a thin line. Stiles’ throat feels thick, and his eyes flick back up to the rearview mirror. Talia meets his gaze. “But I can’t. It’s a cruel trick to play on a person, isn’t it? To make her useless in the face of the suffering of people she loves. So close but so far. Like being shut behind glass. Maybe this is purgatory.”
Stiles looks away, tips his head back and closes his eyes for a second. This is all just so...messy. And hard. Why does everything have to be so fucking hard?
He licks his lips, takes a deep breath. Steels himself.
“Is the box...real?”
There’s a long drawn out silence and then a resigned, “Yes. I buried it two clearings over, closer to the house.”
Stiles nods, takes another deep breath. All Derek’s been doing the last few months is tell him the truth. Why would that change now?
“Did you watch me sleep last night?”
He looks over at Derek, ignores the sound Talia makes in the back seat. Derek works his jaw but keeps his eyes resolutely fixed forward and says quietly, “You wouldn’t talk to me Stiles, and I thought something was really wrong with you. What would you have done if you were me?”
“I’m not mad,” Stiles says and Derek considers that, gives him a tense nod. Still won’t look at him.
It’s a half-hearted acceptance at best.
“I have a system,” Stiles starts, and Derek interrupts, voice dry and flat.
“So you said.”
He shakes his head. This isn’t coming out the way he wants it to. He isn’t...
He shakes his head again in frustration, licks his lips and tries again, models Derek’s own body language and stares straight through the front windshield, his hands clenched tight around the steering wheel. Maybe this will be easier if he just doesn’t look at him.
Right. As if. Nothing about this was ever going to be easy.
He takes a deep breath.
“I thought of my mom first. When it started. But not for the reason you’re thinking of, which...kind of made me feel supremely fucking guilty later, but...” He trails off, swallows around the lump in his throat. “You know how she died?” he asks in a low, even voice. He doesn’t expect an answer, and he doesn’t get one. “It’s called frontotemporal dementia. FTD. It’s a progressive, degenerative disease where you lose your empathy, you get impulsive, you don’t act like yourself anymore.”
He knows he sounds a little empty, detached. But he’s never really talked about what happened with his mom with anyone before, what it felt like to lose her little by little every single fucking day, how sick and terrified he felt all the time. It’s just been him and his dad who knew the worst of it, who saw her change, who watched her die.
And for a few days, he thought his dad was going to have to go through that all over again.
“My mom’s first symptom was hallucinations. She saw people who weren’t supposed to be there.”
He feels Derek’s eyes on him now, but he keeps his eyes focused forward, on two little girls playing hopscotch down the sidewalk a ways, laughing and chanting as they jump from one square to another. Cin-der-ella dressed in ye-lla...went upstairs to kiss her fe-lla!
“Did you know frontotemporal dementia can run in families?”
“I thought I was sick at first,” he says. “Just like she was. I thought I was dying.”
“But you’re not,” Derek says firmly. Like if he says it with enough conviction he can force it into being true.
“No, I’m not.” He keeps his eyes fixed firmly forward. “But it scared the shit out of me. And I didn’t know how to explain any of it so I just...didn’t tell anyone. That’s not a conversation I know how to have.”
A couple houses down a man steps out onto his front porch, picks up a watering can and starts watering his hanging planters. The planters spin from the force of the water hitting them, turning their red and purple flowers into a blur.
“You know...I nearly told you like a half dozen times over the last six months.”
“But you didn’t,” he says quietly.
“No. I didn’t.”
Stiles gives a little helpless shrug.
Because he didn’t.
“Stiles...” he says, and he sounds weary.
Because this is hard. Because this sucks. Because Stiles didn’t want to be the next person in the long line of people who’ve hurt Derek. Take your pick.
But he managed to do it anyway. No such thing as winning in this situation.
“The second person I thought of was Laura,” he says instead, because it’s true, and because he thinks Derek deserves to know that. “You know...after my mom, after I figured out what was going on….it was basically all Laura. I looked for her everywhere. Everywhere. Like I kept thinking I’d walk out of class and see her standing next to my car or she’d scare the shit out of me when I stepped out of the shower or something. I figured it was bound to happen at any moment, so I tried to prepare myself. I spent hours rehearsing what I was going to say, how I was going to tell you.” He shakes his head. “Never got it right, though. Nothing I ever came up with sounded right.”
There’s a silence and then, “You did pretty okay today.”
Stiles just laughs because that’s not even a little bit true.
“You are a bad liar, dude.”
“Don’t call me dude,” Derek says, like a reflex, and it’s just familiar enough, said with just enough lightness, to make the strain between them loosen and soften.
“Laura...she isn’t going to show up, Derek,” he says, as gently as he’s able. “She moved on, man.”
Stiles finally looks over, finds Derek watching him with softness in his eyes.
“I figured,” he says, and his voice sounds heavier than it should, more pained.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with you, you know? You have to know that. Ghosts stick around for their own reasons. Because there was something they didn’t say, something they didn’t do. Something that’s unfinished. It doesn’t have anything to do with us, with the living,” he says earnestly. He really needs Derek to understand this. “It’s a good thing that Laura moved on, okay? It means she didn’t have any regrets. It means she knew you’d be okay without her.”
“It doesn’t always feel that way,” he says, and Stiles feels that like the raw, aching wound it is.
“Yeah. Yeah, I get that.”
“I know you do,” Derek says. “Thanks.”
“I’m sorry, you know. If I hurt you by keeping something from you, by lying to you. But...”
“I get it.”
He nods, more to himself than anything, then reaches out a hand and grabs Stiles’, pulls it off the steering wheel and gives it a pulse. “I do. I understand why you did it. But don’t do it again. Don’t hide your pain from me like that.”
Stiles looks down at their hands, at the breadth of Derek’s fingers covering his own and reaches down inside himself, says with his heart in his throat, “I’m not going to stop trying to protect you. Ever. You should know that.”
“I know,” he says, and Stiles looks up. “But keeping things from me...that’s not the way to do it.”
Stiles nods, feels Derek give Stiles’ hand another pulse, watches as Derek laces their fingers together and holds on.
“I have a system,” he tries again, one more time, and this time Derek nods, eyes sweeping over Stiles’ face. “If your mom had shown up before Ellen did, I would’ve told you a couple days ago. But I always help them in the order they arrive. That’s the system. And it’s the only thing that’s kept me even a little sane, especially in the beginning.”
“There were a lot of them in the beginning?”
“Droves,” he says, stretching out the word slowly. “A fuckload, man. All talking over each other, all the time. It got pretty fucking overwhelming pretty quickly.”
“I bet,” he says softly, his thumb sweeping over the pad of Stiles’ hand and Stiles’ stomach aches.
Stiles’ eyes flick up to the rearview mirror and meet Talia’s and she gives him a small nod, eyes crinkling just like her son’s do at the corners.
“Um,” he says eloquently as he looks back at Derek. “If you’re ready to talk to her, she’s ready.”
Derek nods. “Not here.”
“My house?” he asks.
It’ll give them more privacy than the loft, since he knows his dad won’t be home for hours and they can’t guarantee there won’t be assorted werewolves or kanimas or banshees strewn all over Derek’s space.
Derek brings up his other hand, cups the back of Stiles’ neck and brings his head forward, kisses him. It’s gentle, soft, barely anything at all, but he’s still doing it without hesitation, fully aware that his mom is watching from the back seat, and it still makes Stiles’ heart do a stutter step, still makes his breath catch out of sheer disbelief.
Stiles swallows, eyes fixed on Derek as he pulls back, as he brings his hand around and watches his own thumb trace a path on the left side of Stiles’ face from the skin in front of his ear to his cheekbone to a spot next to his mouth. His eyes finally come up, meet Stiles’.
“You ready to get out of here?”
He’s more than ready.
When they reach the house Stiles leads them upstairs to his room then leaves them alone, tells them he’ll be downstairs and to holler for him when it’s Talia’s turn. He wishes he could give them more privacy than that, wishes he could excuse himself for their entire meeting, but for obvious reasons that’s impossible.
Still, it feels like he’s intruding. Derek shouldn’t be forced to share this moment with anyone. It should be his and only his.
Stiles puts the shovel away, picks up the photo of Zeke he’d stashed on the floor of the passenger side of the Jeep earlier, and definitely does not think about the conversation with his dad that’s looming over him. Instead he focuses on the photo in his hands, Zeke standing rigid and unsmiling in front of a wooden building, eyes piercing through the camera, no gun belt in sight.
Stiles sits down on the couch and leans forward, forearms braced on his thighs as he stares at the picture held in both hands.
“My real name is John,” Zeke says, low and slow and measured, and Stiles looks up at him. “John Thompson. I grew up in an orphanage in Boston, and as soon as I was able I got out, came west, and never looked back.”
“And started going by Zeke.”
He inclines his head.
“A new name for a new life.”
He gives another little nod, says, “I never had any family, and not much in the way of friends neither. Except for Billy.”
Stiles shifts so that he’s facing Zeke more fully, the edges of the frame digging into his fingertips. Zeke’s eyes are fixed on him, unwavering and laser sharp.
“Billy was the local blacksmith. A good man. The kind of man other people take advantage of. Too bighearted for his own good. He’d do work for anyone even if they couldn’t pay, tell them they could pay him back later. Most of the time they didn’t. Maybe that would’ve been fine if he was a bachelor like me but he had a family – a wife and two little girls – and he was struggling to feed them, to get by. So he did somethin’ stupid one day, out of desperation. Robbed a bank a couple towns over. And the law man there, well he came looking for Billy a couple days later.”
Stiles sits back against the back of the couch, looks down at the picture in his hands. He’s pretty sure he knows where this is going.
“Me and Billy, we looked a lot alike. When I first came to town, everyone thought I was his brother, coming to stay with him. Wasn’t hard to convince the law man that I was the one who walked into the bank that day.”
Stiles looks up again.
“They hung me in the town square. Everyone came to watch. Everyone except Billy and his family.”
“You gave up your life for his.”
Zeke’s gaze is easy, almost gentle. “Like I said, he’s the only friend I ever had. And he needed his life more than I needed mine.”
Stiles dips his head, closes his eyes.
“I can see why you wouldn’t want to talk about that.”
He nods. “I sure do appreciate your not asking.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Stiles asks.
“If you don’t mind,” Zeke says, “I think I’d like to stay with you for a while yet. And this time, I’ll do my part. Make sure you get a little peace and quiet.”
“You can stay with me for as long as you want,” he says, hand flat on the glass of the frame. “You’ll always have a place with me.”
Stiles hears Derek call his name and he turns his head toward the stairs then turns back, stands, makes his way over to them.
He stops, turns again, says, “I do have a couple questions, if that’s cool?”
Zeke gives one of his nods, slow and smooth.
“Where do you go when you disappear for a day?”
“Nowhere. I just stay out of eyesight.”
There’s a long pause, and then he says, “I suppose I thought you could use a break sometimes. I guess I wasn’t so good at figurin’ out the best way to do that.”
Stiles nods, looks away, swallows over the lump in his throat.
“And your other question?”
“This,” Stiles says, clears his throat and gestures toward Zeke. “This isn’t the way you looked when...”
“When they strung me up?”
Stiles gives a jerky nod. “I can’t imagine they let you keep your gun. Or your hat.”
“You’d be right. No, they did not. I gave them to Billy.”
“Then why do you have them now? Why do you...”
Zeke tilts his head, shifts.
“Look like I do? I believe it’s our choice how we appear,” he says, thoughtful and measured. “Some of us are defined by the way we die, and some of us are not.”
Some of them would rather be defined by the way they lived. Like Harry, and Talia. Like Zeke.
“They’re callin’ your name again.”
Stiles hears them both this time, Derek and Talia, calling out his name, calling for him.
“I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
Stiles pauses, gives him a nod, then turns and climbs the stairs, taking them two at a time, Zeke’s picture in his hand. From the top of the stairs he pauses and looks down at Zeke one more time before he turns, disappears down the hallway.
Derek looks up at him from the foot of his bed when he walks in, shuts the door behind him.
“How you doing?” he asks, because he’s not sure what he’s reading on Derek’s face right now. Relief, sadness, pain, joy...maybe some mixture of all of them.
It’s the last one, he’s guessing.
He walks over to the bookshelf inset into his wall, sets Zeke’s picture down, angles it out.
“Good,” Derek says, and Stiles turns.
“Yeah,” he says, and he looks a little worn out, but Stiles believes him. “I’m good.”
“Stiles...if you’re ready?”
He looks at Talia, standing patiently at the end of Stiles’ bed, next to Derek.
“Yeah, of course,” he says, wipes his hands over his thighs. “Do you want me to...turn around, or…?”
She shakes her head, a small smile tipping her lips. “That’s not necessary.”
“Alright, okay,” he says, walks over and takes a seat in his desk chair. “Uh...so Derek, your mom is standing right next to you, to your left. I’ll try and say everything she says word for word. Uh...” He looks at Talia, licks his lips. “Go ahead. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Derek,” she says, “my boy. So like me in so many ways.”
Stiles repeats the words that sound so false coming out of his mouth but Derek doesn’t seem to care, just gives a watery smile to the space next to him that his mom occupies.
“I love you. I need you to know that first and foremost. I love you. And I don’t blame you, none of us do. You were sad, and you were hurting, and how could we ever blame you for looking for love and comfort?”
Derek closes his eyes, swallows. Stiles looks away from them, toward the wall, blinks hard.
“None of this is your fault, and I can’t have you thinking it is. There is so much more to you than what was done to you, and I’m so proud of you for the steps you’ve taken to heal, for all the love that still lives inside of you. For your compassion. That only proves to me something I already knew: that you have it in you to be a great Alpha.”
He looks up at the space she occupies with shining eyes.
“Take care of your pack. Our pack. Keep listening to them, keep learning from them, keep finding joy in them. And keep loving. I’m so proud of you, honey,” she says, and her voice catches on a sob. “I’m so proud of you and I love you so much, so much more than I can ever tell you. Thank you for being my son.”
Derek ducks his head, tears flowing down and Stiles looks away again, wipes at his face with the back of his hand.
“You’ll always be my little wolf, but now you’re the Alpha too. Lead our pack, lead our family. I couldn’t have chosen anyone better.”
Stiles’ voice cracks, and he blinks his eyes rapidly, looks up at the ceiling.
“Stiles,” she says, and Stiles looks back to find Talia smiling at him through wet eyes. “Thank you for doing that for us.”
Stiles gives a jerky nod, throat too thick to speak, winces when he sees the light appear behind Talia, golden and bright. She looks behind her shoulder briefly, then gives him a sad smile.
“Looks like my time is almost up.”
He wants to tell her she can stay if she wants, he wants to tell her he wouldn’t mind it if she was one of the voices in his ear. He wants to tell her that they’d all be better off with her there, with them. He wants to tell her none of this is fair, that this sucks, that she shouldn’t leave them. He wants to tell her to stay. He doesn’t say any of that.
“Yeah,” he croaks out instead.
Yeah. Fucking eloquent.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said about alternate universes and alternate timelines.”
“Real. Definitely real. But you’re wrong about something: this can’t be one of the bad timelines.”
“Yeah? How do you know that?”
He barely gets the words out.
“Because,” she says with a small smile. “In the bad timelines you and I never meet at all.”
Stiles ducks his head, sucks in a breath, hears Derek say his name as he comes closer, as he kneels next Stiles and wraps his hand around the back of Stiles’ neck.
“Is it the light?” Derek asks, and Stiles gives a jerky nod, closes his eyes when he feels Derek press himself against Stiles.
He’s pissed at that light right now, and he’s pissed that he can’t get up and pull her into the same kind of hug he’d give his dad – arms wrapped tight, eyes squeezed shut, nose pressed into her shoulder. He’s pissed that he’ll never know what that feels like.
“I’m so grateful for you, Stiles,” Talia says, and Stiles looks up to find tears sliding their way down her smiling cheeks. “I need you to know that. And I’m so...I’m so proud of you. I don’t know if I have any right to be, but I am.”
Stiles swallows and blinks hard against the tears gathering in his eyes, clenches his hand in the fabric of his pants.
“Everything you’ve done for me, everything you do for our pack, everything you do for Derek...he’s better with you. He’s grounded, focused, calm. Everything a werewolf with an anchor should be. He chose well.”
Stiles’ eyes widen and he opens his mouth to deny it but her smile widens, deepens, and she cuts him off before he can with a shake of the head and a few firm words.
“I know my son, Stiles. Even after nine years away from him, I know my boy.”
Stiles gives her a jerky nod.
“I was going to ask you to take care of him, to look after him, but I don’t really need to do that, do I?”
Stiles shakes his head, feels a tear carve its way down his cheek.
“No.” She gives him another smile. “But there are a couple things I’d like for you to do for me, if you don’t mind?”
Like he’d refuse her anything.
“First can you write a letter, send it to Peter?”
“Sure. What do you want it to say?”
“I’m watching you. Signed, TeeTee.”
She gives him a wide smile. “That was his nickname for me. I want him to think I’m haunting him from beyond the grave.”
Stiles laughs, and damn, that feels good.
“Done. Gladly. What’s the second thing?”
“Find my daughter Cora? Get her back to her big brother?”
The smile drops from Stiles’ face and his eyes widen. “She’s-”
“She is. I’d know if she weren’t,” she says. “Can you do that for me, Stiles? Can you bring her back to her pack? Can you bring her back to her brother?”
“Yes,” Stiles says, and he’s never meant anything more in his life.
“Thank you,” she says then turns and looks over her shoulder at the light, shining bright behind her.
She turns back, gives him a sad smile.
“I guess it’s time then.”
She takes one last, long lingering look at Derek, fixing her eyes on him as if she can fix him in her mind, one last snapshot of her beloved boy, all grown up.
Finally she looks away, back to Stiles, and she fixes her eyes on him like she did on Derek, committing his face to memory.
“Goodbye, Stiles. And thank you.”
And then she gives him one last, radiant smile before she turns and walks away from them, into the light.
Stiles keeps his eyes on her until she disappears, then drops his head with a sob, goes when Derek pulls him off his chair and onto the floor with him, wrapping his arms around him tightly. Stiles sobs into Derek’s shoulder, clutches desperately at Derek’s back.
“She’s gone?” he asks softly and Stiles gives a jerky nod.
Derek gives him a squeeze, asks him if he’s okay.
“She’s your mom. I’m supposed to be comforting you,” he says through tears and choked off words.
“You are,” he says, pressing his nose into Stiles’ neck, and Stiles pushes himself even further into the hug, lets everything else slip away except for the tight band of Derek’s arms, holding him firmly, securely. “You are.”
Eventually Derek gets them up off the floor and moves them over to the bed, and they shuck off their shoes and lay side by side and pull each other close, two members of a pack who can’t bear to be apart.
“My dad should be home soon. He’ll want to talk about our relationship.”
Stiles feels him nod.
“We’ll talk to him together.”
“Sure you really want to do that?”
“Yes, I am,” he says firmly and Stiles does not emotionally swoon. He does not. “You should get some rest.”
“Yeah, okay,” he says, and closes his eyes. He isn’t about to argue with that. He feels like he could sleep for the next week, at least. “She’s pretty great, by the way.”
“Yeah,” he says softly, a smile in his voice. “She was. I’m glad you got to meet her. I’m glad you were there for her.”
Not long enough, though. Two days wasn’t nearly long enough.
“She talked to you for a while.”
“Yeah. It was about you, mostly,” he says, then adds, “and alternate universes.”
Derek huffs a laugh at that.
“With, you know, some life shaking truths thrown in there for some flavor.”
“Yeah?” Derek asks and pulls back from Stiles so he can look at him. “Like what?”
Stiles looks up at him, finds Derek’s eyes boring into his.
“She’s alive, Derek. Your sister’s alive. She didn’t die in the fire.”
Stiles and Derek both agree that the pack needs to be told, so after they talk with Stiles’ dad – who seems mightily impressed that Derek stuck around to be a part of the ‘Stiles and Derek are a Thing’ conversation and immediately invited Derek to Sunday night dinner – Derek calls for a pack meeting.
Stiles clocks at least a half dozen “I see dead people” jokes in the first two minutes, but other than that, they’re way more accepting than Stiles was expecting, and he has to admit that has him a little off kilter for a minute.
They really believe him.
“Why wouldn’t we?” Boyd asks.
“I’m a venomous lizard,” Jackson says in a moment of pure self-awareness, one eyebrow raised up to his hairline. “Lydia is a banshee. Everyone else is a werewolf.”
“Should we really be surprised? You’ve simply regressed to the mean,” Lydia says, and shrugs delicately. “I have questions.”
“You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t,” Stiles says. Her lips twitch, and Stiles takes that as the personal victory it is.
He lets Lydia ask her questions – lets everyone else too – and answers them as best as he can, though obviously there are some things he still doesn’t know, some things he’s still working out. No, he doesn’t know if this is permanent or temporary, no, ghosts can’t touch him or anyone else, yes, they can make objects move, although if it’s being thrown at your head it’s probably a poltergeist. Ghosts don’t really do that.
“So...how long have you been able to talk to ghosts?” Isaac asks, and Stiles deliberately avoids looking at Erica when he speaks.
“Roughly six months.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jackson says with a nod, “that tracks.”
Stiles lifts his eyebrows in silent question.
“You’ve been weirder than normal for a while now.”
Stiles turns to face him. “You never said anything.”
“Neither did you,” he says like a mild challenge, and okay, he has a point.
“So,” Erica says slowly, and all eyes track to her. “Why did you wait six months to tell us?”
She sounds hurt, and that makes Stiles clench.
He doesn’t blame her for making him like this, and he never will. But he can’t help himself – sometimes he looks over at her and remembers the panicked few days he went through when he thought his brain was deteriorating, when he thought he was dying. It’s like a sense memory he can’t get rid of, an awful feeling he can’t shake.
He wishes for both their sakes that he could.
Everyone’s eyes swivel back to Stiles and he swallows, tries to come up with a response that isn’t just an excuse.
“Stiles had his reasons,” Derek says firmly, arms crossed over his chest. “And they’re valid ones. It had nothing to do with any of you, and that’s all you need to know. Okay?”
He stares them down until a series of nods follow, some easy or accepting – Boyd and Jackson – some more reluctant – Erica and Isaac – one thoughtful – Lydia, naturally – and the last non-existent – Peter. All pretty much what Stiles was expecting.
“So...how long does a ghost stay with you?” Isaac asks.
Stiles takes a moment before he responds. “Uh, a few days usually. Give or take.”
“Is there a ghost with you right now?” Lydia asks, smoothing her skirt down over her crossed legs.
“Yeah. His name is Zeke.”
“So he’s been with you for, what...a day?” Erica asks.
“Nope. Zeke’s been with me for just about six months now.”
There’s stunned silence, broken only by Peter’s thoughtful, “Huh.”
“Look,” Stiles says on a sigh, “ghosts choose to come to me when they need me, and they choose to move on when it suits them. It’s a personal thing, and it’d be pretty shitty of me to try to force their process. So I don’t.”
“Does that mean Zeke has no plans to move on anytime soon?” Jackson asks.
Derek frowns. “That’s a personal question, Jackson.”
Jackson waves that off. “Yeah, but if he’s planning to stick around for a while it means he’s useful. It means Stiles’ gift is useful.”
Everyone just gives him blank looks and Jackson rolls his eyes, but Stiles is still focused on the fact that Jackson is calling it his gift.
“I can’t see him,” he says pointedly, words overly precise. “Other than Stiles, can anyone else here see him?” There are scattered nos and shrugs, and Jackson says, “Exactly. And if we can’t see him, then it’s likely other supernatural creatures can’t see him either.”
There’s silence until Peter says, “That’s surprisingly insightful, Jackson,” and Jackson throws back eat me at the same time Derek chides his uncle with a growled Peter.
“I never thought of that,” Stiles says, and the thing is, he really can’t believe he didn’t.
“It’s not like you’ve been yourself for the last six months,” Jackson says.
“We would need to run some trials and tests,” Lydia says, and Stiles can practically see the gears turning in her head as her excitement grows over the possibilities. “And we should definitely speak with Deaton first – see what he can tell us – but if Zeke’s invisible to everyone but Stiles, that could make him the perfect scout. That could be a huge advantage.”
Excited chatter starts to grow, but Stiles ignores that and looks over at Zeke. Zeke is watching the rest of the pack warily, and Stiles thinks it must be frustrating to have people who don’t know you and can’t see you talk about using you as if you’re some sort of tool and not the ghost of an actual person, who willingly died to make sure his best friend didn’t.
Stiles almost speaks up but Derek beats him to the punch.
“No,” he says firmly.
The chatter comes to a grinding halt as everyone turns to look at him.
“The first thing we should do is consult Zeke – ask him if he wants to help us. If he doesn’t we’ll accept that, and remember that he’s here for Stiles and not for us. It’s his choice to make, and his alone. And we don’t use people in this pack. Understood?”
There are scattered nods and quiet yeses, and Derek gives them a nod back before looking down at his watch then looking at Stiles.
Right. They have that thing.
“Good. Stiles and I have something we need to go do, but hang around. We’ll be back in about an hour with pizza and ice cream. Requests?”
Much as Stiles enjoys driving, it’s nice not to be the one behind the wheel for once, and he relaxes back into the passenger seat in the Camaro, quietly watches the trees pass on the side of the road as Derek drives them toward Paulie’s Diner near the edge of town.
Derek rests his hand on Stiles’ thigh and Stiles looks over then turns to the back seat, finds Zeke watching him.
“I’ll be your scout.”
Stiles pauses, says, “You don’t have to. You shouldn’t feel obligated.”
“I don’t. But it would help you?”
“Yeah,” Stiles says. “Probably.”
Zeke gives a nod, looks out the window. “Well alright then. In that case, there’s no choice to make.”
“Jesus,” Stiles breathes, and ducks his head.
“Everything okay?” Derek asks, and Stiles nods.
“Yeah, Zeke is just...awesome,” he says, and turns forward to sit back against the seat.
Derek flicks his eyes up to the rear view mirror as if he can see him, says seriously, “Thank you, Zeke.”
Zeke gives him a nod from the back seat, answers as if Derek can hear him.
“You’re welcome, Derek.”
When Derek pulls up to Paulie’s he parks and Stiles gets out first, strides into the mostly empty diner and looks around until he spots the person they’re there to meet. When he finds him he takes a few quick steps over and slides onto the booth seat opposite him.
“Hey, Danny. Thanks for meeting me. Us,” he amends, when Derek sits down next to him.
“Stiles,” he says, then nods at Derek. “Cousin Miguel. Less blood on you this time. You’ve figured out how to manage those nose bleeds, then.”
“Uh, yeah,” Stiles says and winces, scrubs at the back of his head. “He’s not my cousin. And his name isn’t Miguel.”
“You don’t say,” Danny says, twelve kinds of unimpressed.
God, only Danny can pull that off without looking like a judgmental douchebag.
“Right. Uh...so...his name is Derek Hale, actually. And he’s my boyfriend.”
Danny’s eyebrows go up and he looks back and forth between the two of them, assessing.
His eyes finally land on Stiles and he says, “Nicely done.”
“Thanks,” Derek says, “I lucked out.”
Jesus. Stiles wants to make out with him right here, right now.
“So what’s this about, Stiles? Why did you want to meet?”
“We wanted to ask for your help with something,” he says, and orders three Cokes for the table when the waitress comes to take their order.
Danny watches her walk away and says, “Well, if it’s the werewolf thing I’m not sure how much help I can be, seeing as I’m not a werewolf myself.”
Stiles’ eyes widen and he blinks, barely chokes out a thank you to the waitress when she comes right back with their sodas, dropping them off at the table with three paper wrapped straws.
“None of you are subtle,” he says, and well...that’s probably true.
“Okayyyyyy,” Stiles says, eyes still wide as he draws out the word. “Uhhhh...that’s not what we need your help with, but I feel like we should put a pin in that, maybe circle back around to it?”
Derek says, “What do you know about the Hales?”
Danny takes a sip of his soda, shrugs. “What everyone else does, I guess. Wealthy family. Big fire nine years ago that killed almost everyone.”
“That’s right. Other than myself, I thought only my sister and my uncle had survived. But it turns out I might be wrong about that.”
Danny’s eyebrows tick up and Stiles says, “We have reason to believe that Derek’s younger sister Cora survived. We were hoping you could use your skills, help us find her. My dad’s going to help too, but there’s a lot of places you can go that he can’t, so...”
“Yes,” Danny says. “I’ll help you. And you don’t need to pay me. Just promise that Stiles will never hit on me again.”
“Done!” Stiles says and slaps his hand against the table. “So, uh….werewolves...” He trails off, looks over at Derek, who gives him a nod. “Definitely a thing. As are...other things.”
“What are you doing tonight?” Derek asks, a little abruptly.
“If you’re not doing anything, Stiles and I are picking up pizza and ice cream, bringing it to the pack. We watch movies, play games...you’re welcome to join us, if you want. If that’s...something that you’re interested in.”
Danny considers that for a moment, then says, “That sounds good.”
“Good,” Derek says, and nods. “I’m sure you have questions. We’ll be happy to answer them.”
They leave Danny with directions to Derek’s loft and climb back into the Camaro, make the drive a few streets over to the pack’s favorite pizza place. They put in their order and hang back near the wall, waiting for their name to be called.
“So you’ve just...invited someone else into the pack.”
Derek frowns at him, arms crossed, and steps back against the wall to let a mom and her two kids walk by. “Are you upset about that? I thought you would’ve liked that.”
“No, no,” he says, shaking his head. “Danny’s great. You know I think he’s great or I would’ve never suggested bringing our search for Cora to him. I would’ve just done it myself. I wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it and it would’ve taken me way more time than it’ll take him, but I would’ve worked like hell to find her.”
“I know,” he says softly.
“Also he already knows, so bringing him in makes sense. I was just, you know...surprised. ‘Cuz I gotta say, that was some pretty open communication there, buddy. Where did that come from?”
Did it feel a little abrupt? A little overly formal? Sure. But he’s not about to call Derek out on that. Not when it’s clear he was trying.
Derek stares at Stiles. “You.”
Derek shakes his head, watches the mom and kids place their order.
“I’m not good at this, Stiles,” he says quietly, eyes focused forward. “I know I’m not. It doesn’t come naturally to me the same way it does to you. But I’m trying.”
Yeah, he is.
“I don’t know...you’ve been doing pretty well lately,” he says, and Derek looks over at him. “And probably for a lot longer than lately. I’ve just been pretty self-absorbed recently.”
“With good reason.”
Stiles nods. He’s not sure he’s going to forgive himself anytime soon though for not really listening to Derek when he was so clearly trying to reach Stiles, or for only hearing the words that sounded like accusations and ignoring the words that sounded like support, like concern.
“So...your mom said that I’m your anchor?”
“Yeah, you are,” he says with a smile in his voice, and Stiles admires the even strength of his tone, the way he refuses to back down or look away from something that’s such a big fucking deal.
“Cool,” Stiles says and ducks his head. “Would it um...would it make a difference to you if I told you you were mine too?”
He looks up, locks eyes with Derek.
“Yes,” Derek says softly, for only Stiles to hear. “It would.”
“Awesome,” he breathes out, and feels his stomach flip under the weight of Derek’s gaze.
“Pick up for Hale!”
Over the next couple of weeks they get a routine down, the three of them. Zeke helps him reclaim some much needed space and sanity and explains the boundaries to all his new ghost buddies, outlining very precisely the unbreakable rules that every ghost must follow if they want Stiles’ help moving on. And all of them do.
Derek is more emotional support than anything since he has no way of interacting one on one with the ghosts, but he makes sure Stiles eats and sleeps and doesn’t run himself ragged – providing incentive by way of some top quality makeout sessions – and has some pretty good ideas about how to handle the more difficult ghosts that don’t believe in making it easy for them.
All in all it’s become the norm now for Stiles to come down the stairs in the morning fully rested and greet someone new, and that holds true today when Stiles walks down the stairs, Derek close behind, and sees a young girl sitting on the couch next to Zeke, waiting patiently.
Stiles had wondered how long it might be before the ghost on the couch was someone he knew. Not knew of, like with Talia, but really, truly knew.
“Hi Cassie,” Stiles says, and Cassie stands, gives him a smile.
“Long time no see, huh?”
“Yeah,” she says, and wrinkles her nose. “Guess so.”
When Stiles and Scott were thirteen they spent some time haunting the children’s ward at Beacon Hills Memorial. They were there because neither Stiles’ dad nor Scott’s mom trusted them alone in either of their houses after school following what their parents like to call ‘The Incident’, but even though they made a little noise about it, Stiles and Scott didn’t really mind volunteering with the kids in the afternoons. Mostly they colored or played games or read books and sat in chairs and at tables that were too small for them and made them feel like giants. And that’s where Stiles met Cassie.
Cassie was awesome. She was nine years old when they met, and he feel in love instantly with this smart, snarky little kid with an insane love for superheroes – Wonder Woman was her favorite, Respect – who also happened to be super talented with a colored pencil in her hand. Her cancer was killing her more and more every day, and she knew it, but she never let that be her ‘thing’, except when she was trying to con more froyo off the cafeteria ladies, which she pretty much always managed to do.
If he’d had a little sister – and if his little sister had been black and Japanese – she would’ve been Cassie. And Derek knows all about her, because they had a conversation about a week ago that centered on People Stiles Knows Who Died and People Derek Knows Who Died, just to prepare themselves for the inevitable day when they’ll come walking down the stairs and find one of them sitting on the family room couch.
It’s a lot easier helping someone you don’t know.
“You were holding out on me, Stiles. You can talk to ghosts? Seriously? That’s like...superhero stuff.”
He laughs. “It’s a pretty new development, actually.”
“Mmm hmm,” she says, and narrows her eyes at him. “Sure.”
“Hey...you think I would’ve held out on you? You?”
She gives him one of her old smiles, bright and shining and big.
“It’s good to see you again,” he says.
“It’s good to be seen.”
“So you met Zeke,” Stiles says, nodding at the ghost standing next to Cassie and then gestures to his left. “And this is Derek. He can’t see you or hear you, but he’s here to help you too. And guess what?”
He crouches down and cups his hand around his mouth, looks right and left with shifty eyes before leaning in a little closer and mock whispering.
“He’s a werewolf.”
“Nuh uh,” she says, rolling her eyes.
Stiles straightens up, lifts both hands in the air. “True story!”
“Come on,” she says, and Stiles turns to Derek.
“She doesn’t believe me. Do the thing.”
And Derek, casual as you please, hands in his pockets and posture totally relaxed, goes into Beta shift.
“Wicked,” Cassie says, eyes wide and face delighted, and Stiles laughs.
“Right?” He flips his head to Derek. “She thinks you’re wicked.”
Derek shifts back and gives her a smile. “Thank you, Cassie.”
Stiles comes forward, sits down on the coffee table in front of Cassie, waiting until she sits back down on the couch.
“So...you’re almost ready to move on, huh?”
“How do you know that?” she asks, tucking a lock of curly hair behind her ear.
“Because that’s usually what it means when you come find me. You just have one more thing left to do, and I’m the one that can help you do it.” She gives him a little nod and a rueful smile. “Do you know what your thing is?”
“Yeah,” she says after a moment, “I think I do.”
“Okay,” Stiles says and nods, watches Zeke sit down next to Cassie as he feels Derek come closer, so that he’s standing right next to Stiles.
“Well in that case...how can we help?”