Stiles wasn't really a dreamer, but he did have one hell of an imagination. Hence, writing.
In his head was a scene on the beach, a combination of different dramas playing out - he was somewhere between the finality of death and the tragic forever-loss of someone, both of them alive, but never able to be with each other again, with nothing more than memories to keep them company.
But on the real, it was fucking depressing, which, hey, perfect.
He was dealing with the aftermath of his own shitty tragedy, so it only made sense. It was running through his head again - does that which is bitter end sweet? That whole monologue had always stuck with him, way after the first time he’d watched RocknRolla with Scott, but most of the movie was too far away from anyone in the story he was writing that thinking about it wasn’t actually helpful.
There was a split second of weency bit of warm-feelings, thinking of him and Scott sitting back and loving every minute of that movie, the serious roller coaster it'd been, how into it they were. And then Stiles' new best buddy - a veritable iron curtain of anxious nothing - came down and squashed the memory.
As always, something gripped his gut tight at the thought of Scott, but he forced himself to calm down, and let himself think of Scott slowly. Controlled thinking. Acknowledge, don’t ruminate.
That was what he was supposed to do, anyway.
The person that Stiles was writing at the moment was who Scott would have been if he’d taken the low road after his dad left. Scott wasn't the type of dude to throw around his past, but he and Stiles shared enough history that he didn't have to say much for Stiles to get it when not even a fucking card came for birthdays or Christmas, his dad apparently too busy to remember. But if he wanted to say more, Stiles was there for that, too.
Scott was family, and for Stiles that was something hard to come by. And it wasn’t his fault that they were on bad… terms. It was - it was Stiles. No, it wasn’t… They. Stiles. Family is hard to - So fucking hard to. Hard. Scott did everything, he didn’t. Just - because they were all - it was - he couldn’t -
Dead, he's dead, they’re dead, they’re fucking gone, and they don’t want me, what am I doing, no one cares, I don’t care, I’ve never given a shit about me, why should anyone else, why should I care, I don’t, I don’t care, I don’t care at all, why won’t it just stop, if I don’t care, why won’t it stop, jesus fucking christ I just want, but I deserve this, deserve it all, can’t do it, can’t make it stop, it can’t stop, this is what happens, everything is fucked and it’s my fault, all my fault, all of it, always, always has been always will be, fuck, fuck, FUCK -
Stiles slammed his laptop shut and buried his face in his hands in an effort to keep them from literally tearing his hair out. He was struggling to breathe, but felt like his chest was falling in on itself, and he was three seconds away from freaking right the fuck out.
His ears rang as his mind raced from one thing to another; from loss, loneliness, and then every tiny thing that had ever completely wrecked itself in one way or another over his whole fucking lifetime. In his head there were faces, the pitying and worried faces of his friends trying to help, but only making everything worse. There were words dropping like bombs - useless, disappointment, helpless, worthless, loser, failure.
(You killed them both -
Couldn't keep it together -
Can't even keep your friends -
No one wants you -
It's not gonna stop -
You'll lose your mind -
What’s it worth -
Killed them both -
Killed them -
Drove them out -
They’re gone, everyone’s gone -)
Logically knowing that what he heard in his head were horrible lies that only came from itty bitty grains of truth didn't really help in the face of this fucking whirlwind that he was fighting down. It didn't help the lump in his throat or the squeezing in his stomach that made him want to vomit. It didn't do a damn thing for his pounding heart and stinging eyes.
He took control of his breathing and inhaled desperately, until his lungs felt like they were going to explode under the pressure, and then exhaled as slowly as he could, collapsing his chest and focusing on the feeling of constriction and emptiness in his body. He started counting - inhale, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - hold 1, 2, 3 - exhale 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
Stiles sat breathing, leaned back in his chair with the wind whistling by and the sun warm on his skin. The waves of the ocean crashed over and over against the shore. There was the heavy scent and feel of salt on the air, and Stiles kept breathing.
As he calmed down (ha, calm, right), he scrubbed his hands down his face. His eyes felt sore from how he'd clenched them shut against tears, knowing if it started again he wouldn’t be able to stop. He looked out at the scene that'd brought him back.
The therapist had a point, it seemed. Somewhere quiet and calm to take away the stress. Somewhere to focus on the right things and relax.
As he grabbed his laptop and notes to head back inside, he thought about how it was weird that some sounds set him off if he was already on the verge of a panic attack, but others seemed to be just at that point between quiet and loud that would take the edge off, let his breathing keep on track until the almost freak out had passed.
He put all his crap on the dining room table, and went immediately for the sink, splashing icy water on his face and neck. He patted his face down with a towel, then poured himself a glass of water and gulped it down, still shaking steadily, but feeling a little more relief every minute. He looked up at the ceiling, inhaling deeply and letting out a long, forceful sigh.
He'd thought before that he'd been done with these damn things a long time ago, that he'd left the panic attacks behind with high school.
But he wasn’t exactly a lucky person, so. There he was.
He glanced over at the ugly pastel-fishes beach-typical clock hanging next to the fridge, and realized it was time to eat. He wasn't proud to admit it, but he'd lost a lot of weight in the last year, and these days if he didn't eat on a schedule, he'd forget to eat at all.
He figured he'd do something easy, and went for a standard - chicken and rice casserole with broccoli snuck into it. He paused washing the broccoli, trying to swallow against his suddenly cramped throat and force down the sharp stab that seemed to pierce straight through his sternum.
There wasn't really a reason to be “sneaking” veggies into food anymore, was there?
He brought one wet hand up to his face, covering his eyes.
"Goddammit, Dad. I miss you so fucking much…"
He shook his head quickly and wiped his face with his sleeve, choosing to reroute instead of acknowledge that train of thought (because that had gone so well five minutes ago) and turned his attention back to the washing, shutting the sink off when he felt like everything was clean. When he got to chopping, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he was distinctly uncomfortable - the kind of feeling he got when he knew someone sketchy was looking at him that he really, really didn't want to look back at.
He felt like things were just too creepy quiet (seriously, this place gave him the mild jeebies sometimes, though he figured for how calm everything was otherwise, being heebed on occasion wasn't such a big deal), so he picked up his phone from the table and flipped through his music, picking something at random for background noise as he went back to chopping and throwing everything together, his hands working more steadily as he focused on the movements. It was grounding, gave him something to do, and cooking had always been soothing - that hadn't been lost with everything else, at least.
He felt like a kid when he started crumbling crackers to cover the casserole, and the corners of his lips quirked up at the thought of one kid at a restaurant he and Scott had gone to once doing the same thing… Except the little shit’d looked directly at the exhausted waiter and thrown the crackers to the floor, wearing such a shit-eating grin that Stiles had almost snorted Sprite out of his nose.
It was at that point that Stiles had decided that he would do anything he could to avoid waiting tables in college. Kids were great and all, and he could keep a smile pasted on with the best of them, but he just knew that he'd be damn exhausted at the end of a shift. And he'd promised certain people he'd quit abusing his adderall and try to keep a decent sleep schedule and not drink himself stupid.
He'd let those promises fly out the window when he’d started losing his head, trying to meet due dates while drowning himself in alcohol whenever he could. Then he'd stopped trying to meet the due dates, and just… Didn't want to think anymore.
He didn't want to be thinking right then.
Casserole in the oven, he turned the music off and tried to decide what he wanted to do. Which, hilarious, because he hadn't actually wanted to do anything for way too long now. Making himself sit down and write, or cook, or play video games, or watch TV, or read, or click mindlessly through Wikipedia, or any of the things he used to love was all part of the therapy. Kind of in a "if you just keep smiling, one day it'll be real again" sort of way. Fake it til you make it. It worked sometimes; there were times he felt himself slipping into a good state in whatever he was doing.
But inevitably something would happen, and he just couldn't anymore. Like, y’know. Do anything. Move. Breathe.
He glanced at the TV, at the pile of video games he'd brought hanging out next to a pile of those cheesy romance movies that he not-so-secretly loved. Deciding no, his eyes settled on his laptop, and he thought about the woman in his story and her addictions, and he wasn't so sure he wanted to work on her perspective at the moment. He felt weird when he went out of order with his chapters and scenes, so he'd probably put that off for a while.
Or maybe he should just start something else. Something light-hearted with a happy ending.
The corner of his mouth twitched up bitterly.
Right, because he could channel nice feelings and fluffy thoughts, and pump true love out of fingers attached to a heart that had never felt “the glory of reciprocity” of such things itself.
Once again, nothing appealed. He was getting that familiar desire to crawl up the stairs to bed and lay there until he wasted away. He slipped into a weird state of consciousness when he actually gave into that impulse, since most of the time he didn't even really sleep - real sleep without booze was still a work in progress - but his mind was on pause enough that things would seem far away, like the life he'd been living was only some kind of dream. That state of being was addicting, almost as good as drinking himself into a coma.
He bit his lip and looked back toward the games he'd brought, contemplating them a second time. He was in the middle of like four of them, but suddenly wished he'd brought something he'd already finished that he could mindlessly replay with no surprises. Instead he found himself bending down to the pile, tugging Skyrim out and setting it up so he could sit back and play until dinner was ready.
When his timer went off he exited the game and made a plate, picking a movie at random from his collection of shitty Rom-coms and popping it in before settling back with his food.
He took each bite mechanically, aware of chewing and tasting, swallowing and getting full, but not actually processing any of it. He felt distant from it somehow, and it was true that these days food was more to keep him alive than to feel good. He wouldn't make crappy food on purpose or anything, but it didn't much matter to him what he ate, because at the end of the day he disassociated from it all.
Losing his appetite fucking sucked, because Stiles had been all about the comfort food, picky about making healthy meals that tasted good but still indulging in chocolate and Cheetos and copious amounts of curly fries from time to time.
He and Scott would order like 5 large things of curly fries and eat them in a sitting, coming to seriously regret the decision when they would try and fail to move while carrying their food-babies. But being teenage boys, they’d always forget exactly what the consequences were and do it all over again later, then wonder why they ever did it to themselves when they already knew.
He finished, putting down the bowl and curling up into the big white leather couch of comfyness with the throw blanket, watching the rest of the movie play out with half his mind on the plot and half in a fog, sunk into the couch and warmth.
He must have drifted, because the next time he was aware of anything the dvd had returned to the home screen and the only light came from the tv and the glow of the moon through the large windows. His neck ached a little from slumping on the couch, and he rubbed it absently as he got up to shut everything off, and made his way to the stairs and up to bed in the darkness.
He felt bleary despite the rest, almost dizzy, and halfway up the carpeted steps remembered the pills he was supposed to take before bed (yay starting doses of antidepressant that apparently haven’t kicked in yet) and also realized that he hadn’t put away the leftovers. Hopefully the food wasn’t rampantly growing bacteria, but eh, it was probably fine. He yawned loudly, then turned to head back down the stairs.
His socked foot slipped and his body tilted, fear and panic taking over for a split second as he tried to correct the misstep, but he couldn't make it, feeling himself roll head first down, down, and the last thing he felt before the blackness was a shot of intense pain through the back of his skull.
The light from the sun was fricken blinding when Stiles blinked himself awake, confused for a moment about where exactly he was. He felt distinctly uncomfortable, one leg crooked out to the side and one arm, like, underneath him (how the fuck…?), and struggled into a sitting position. The stone-tiled floor was cold beneath his hands, grounding him a little as he shook his head gently, trying to get himself to full consciousness and figure out why the hell he was sprawled on his back at the bottom of the stairs as opposed to cocooned in blankets and heaven.
As he stood he looked up the stairway, and vaguely remembered spinning on the steps only to bust his ass (break his head) on the floor below. So, okay, there was that, but… Why the hell didn't his head hurt? When his hand ran over the back of his skull, there was no lump, and it wasn't tender at all. Just hair and scalp, no evidence of a fall or a hurt or any damage whatsoever.
Feeling a little unsettled, but damned if he was going to question the whole no-pain thing he had going, he made his way to the kitchen to check the time.
Eight AM. Breakfast time, just about on the dot.
He sighed heavily, running one hand through his hair, and dragged his feet to start his routine. He was washing his hands thoroughly when he started getting the feeling that something wasn’t right, and that was when he noticed that the dish rag he'd been using was nowhere to be found.
Okay then. That was… weird. But Stiles could really only think of two explanations of the top of his head: either the place was haunted as fuck; or a very discrete cleaning crew had come in while Stiles was knocked out on the floor.
...He'd go with the cleaning crew.
As he went to grab his phone or laptop for some tunes to help negate the freaky feeling he was starting to get, he wondered absently if they’d mopped around him.
But when he looked on the kitchen table where he’d left his stuff, there was nothing there.
Or on the deck.
Or in front of the tv.
Fuck, did somebody fucking rob him while he was out cold and dead to the world?
"No. Nope, not happening, you just have an overactive imagination, cleaners probably just moved all your stuff upstairs or something,” he muttered, scrubbing a hand over the back of his head and walking to the base of the stairs, where he stood for a moment, feeling uneasy. A minute or so later, he was climbing up the stairs, alarm bells threatening to start ringing in his head, and felt himself go stock-still when he reached his bedroom and saw that all the shit he'd remembering being messily strewn across the room was gone.
And the bed was made.
What the fuck.
He went to the bathroom, those alarm bells now starting to go off like crazy, but his toothbrush and all his other crap were missing too, and the fucking toilet paper had a little triangle folded onto it like it had when he'd first arrived at the house.
Either the cleaning crew had robbed him blind, or there was some seriously weird shit happening.
"Okay, uh… Dream? Dream! Dream, dream, I'm obviously dreaming, what the fuck, okay wake up!" He found himself half-yelling, his voice squeaking out the last few words. He was starting to really freak out as he paced restlessly, pinched his side as hard as he could, but only succeeded in causing himself to squawk, with everything around him still exactly the same.
Feeling desperate and not a little bit nuts, he ran outside, pajamas and all, no shoes, barreling down the stairs and up the gravel driveway, coming to a stop when he noticed a middle-aged dude out walking his dog. Panting in his panic, he shouted out a "Hey!"
The guy didn't so much as flinch.
"HEY! You! Guy with the dog!"
No response from the guy, though the dog stopped and looked straight at him. He heard a low growl, and the owner must have noticed too, because he looked up, gaze going around and… and through Stiles.
"Hey! Oh my fucking... Hellooo, can you hear me!? Hey!" Stiles shouted, nearly screaming, waving his arms frantically. The dog's owner looked at the dog and back up, and then pulled the dog along to casually stroll away. Stiles deflated, feeling suddenly totally alone, nervous, and at a complete loss.
"He can't hear you."
Stiles jumped and turned abruptly, almost falling in the gravel as it shifted unsteadily beneath his feet. There was a man standing there, feet braced apart, arms crossed.
"Jesus christ, way to almost give a guy a heart attack!"
The man's dark eyebrows lowered, his grumpy (yet chiseled, stubbled, and all-around unfairly attractive) face moving into a full-on glower.
"He can't hear you," McGrumpenpants said again.
"Uh, yeah, no shit. Dude must be deaf and blind or some-"
"No one can hear you," he bulldozed right over Stiles, the rude fuck.
Stiles exhaled forcefully, eyebrows pinching together as he tried to check his rising anger.
"Okay, Mr. Cryptic, what exactly do you mean 'no one can hear me'? What the hell is going on?"
Talk Dark and Frowning uncrossed his arms, and gave Stiles a blank once-over before turning and striding back toward the house.
"What the - are - are you fucking kidding me right now?" Stiles spluttered, but the dude made no indication that he'd heard him. "Hey! Will you just - HEY!"
When the guy just kept walking up the drive, Stiles bolted after him, grabbing his shoulder and roughly throwing the man around to face him. He gripped his shoulder tightly to keep him in place, glaring into the prettiest pair of eyes he'd ever seen in real actual life.
"Can you just stop for a minute and bother to tell me what the hell is happening? Why all my shit is gone? Why the bed is made? Why I woke up at the bottom of the stairs after breaking my head on the floor without even a bruise?"
Pretty Eyes Glarenstein raised an eyebrow at him, looked pointedly at the hand on his shoulder, and back to Stiles. The intensity Stiles saw in his face at that moment made his heart stutter a little in fear, and he snatched his hand away, crossing his arms over his chest.
"So?" Stiles prompted, trying to keep his tone level. He wanted to look away from the focus of Scary-dude's eyes, but he felt like he had to prove something. He wasn't going to be afraid of some rando who just packed a good glare.
As long as he didn't, like, piss himself or something, he'd be good.
Stiles blinked heavily, and then gave Dude his best stink-eye.
“That was the lamest threat I’ve ever heard. Not intimidating at all, bro.”
“You’re dead,” the guy repeated. Something clicked in Stiles’ head, then, and started up a dry, dark, unimpressed laugh.
"Right, right! Yeah, I'm dead, and I'm a ghost, just haunting away, la-dee-da? Yeah, okay, real funny, dude's got jokes! Who'd have thought, you are the human frown -"
"I'm not joking," the man said, deadpan. "Try crossing the street if you don't believe me." And with that, he turned and continued up the driveway to the side-door stairs.
Stiles gave him the hairy eyeball as he walked up the stairs into the house before rolling his eyes hard, but still felt a little hysterical, and a little like he wanted to throw up. Because dead? Seriously?
He looked out at the street, saw a kid fly by on his bike.
This guy had to be… playing a prank on him? Or maybe he just wanted Stiles to get hit by a car. He seemed like the kinda guy who'd get a kick out the vehicular homicide of annoying 24-year-olds.
But there was that niggling little feeling in the back of his head, something that told him that there was some disturbing truth to what dude was saying. Still, it was highly doubtful that Stiles was actually dead and haunting this stupid beach house, because what unfinished business did he have? He wasn't vengeful or anything, he'd just been some depressed lonely person trying to get their head on straight. That sounded like a pretty damn boring ghost if anyone asked him.
Still, Stiles found himself walking up the rest of the drive to the edge of the street. He looked both ways to check for traffic, but the road was quiet. He took a deep breath, feeling nervous, but quickly shook it off, because what the hell was there to even be nervous about, right?
He took a step out onto the pavement, but before his foot even hit the ground he felt something pull inside of him, and what the serious fuck he was back next to the stairs where he'd woken up that morning.
He looked around, flailing, the freakiness of what'd just happened really starting to send him into panic mode. He felt his hair stand on end, a prickling deep in his bones, and true to form his breath came shorter, the world losing sound around him, and -
No. Just, no. He squeezed his eyes shut, relaxed them. Made fists and tensed his forearms. Relaxed them. Biceps. Abdomen. Breathing, breathing, breathing, tense one-two-three in, hold two, relax, long exhale.
Not today, brain.
Stiles continued on just like he’d been taught, and when he'd marginally calmed, he turned around to see the same guy from before gazing at him from the living room. He raised his eyebrows at Stiles, looking smug and aggravating.
"Believe me now?"
Stiles exhaled heavily through his nose, choosing to redirect his panic into anger at this dude in the unnecessarily tight grey henley.
"Okay, yeah. Some really freaky shit is going on right now, and, not gonna lie, I'm about two hairs away from freaking out -"
"Looks like you're already there."
"- and full on punching you in the face. Stop being a prick for two seconds and help me out here," Stiles was doing that thing where he yelled at someone without raising his voice, but it didn't seem to be as intimidating to this guy as he wished it would be. "Can we start off with some basics? What's your name?"
The guy looked like he was having to drag the response out of his very core, but he did end up answering.
"Hi Derek, I'm Stiles," Stiles replied with sarcastic pleasantry. "Now, can you tell me what's going on here?"
"You are dead,” Derek repeated yet again, speaking slowly and enunciating as if Stiles didn’t speak English. “I am dead. We are ghosts now."
"That much I got," Stiles snapped back. "But, like, how long have you been here? Why are we here? How are we here? How long have I been dead? Oh my god, did I seriously kill myself falling down a flight of stairs? That is the fucking lamest of the lame. Wait, okay, holy shit, am I really dead?"
Stiles could feel himself on the verge of tipping into either a rage fit or a panic attack for the second time in less than five minutes, neither of which would be productive, so he tried to reign himself in and just keep going. He opened his mouth, but before he could make a sound Derek finally spoke up.
"Congratulations on getting with the program," he said, tone cold and dry. "And I've been here long enough."
Stiles let out a frustrated groan, putting his hand to his forehead and wiping it down his face before looking at Derek again.
"Why am I getting the feeling that getting information from you is gonna be like pulling teeth?"
"You want the truth?" Derek asked, tilting his head down and giving Stiles a hard look. "I don't know how long I've been here, I don’t know what’s happening or why, and no, I don't know how you died."
"What, does time move differently or something? And how can you not know how I died, didn't you just say you'd been here for a while?" Stiles asked, feeling a little uneasy at the prospect of Derek having been around, invisible, the whole time Stiles had been there. Derek rolled his eyes.
"I don't keep tabs 24/7 on every person that passes through," he replied, looking like he was getting slowly more exasperated. "And no, you idiot, time isn’t different. But this isn't prison, I don't keep tally marks on the walls."
Stiles huffed, his socked feet failing to make the heavy pounding noise he'd wanted to reflect his irritation as he stomped across the room to the dining table, dragging out a chair and flinging himself into it.
Well, at least he could move shit around.
"So you have no clue what’s going on? Is this some kind of if-you-die-here-you-stay-here kinda thing?"
"How should I know?"
"Don't answer my questions with questions!" Stiles bit out. "Okay, is there anything you actually do know, or are you as completely useless as you seem to be?"
Stiles felt himself almost, almost regretting the words when Derek's face went dark and closed.
"You figure it out," he said, voice low and tense. Stiles noticed one fist curling at Derek’s side as he turned and walked out to the porch. Stiles ignored the twinge of guilt he felt at letting his mouth run away from him, and instead focused on his envy of Derek's clomping boots. He frowned, looking down at his own feet covered in plain white socks. Couldn't he have at least died with some shoes on? For christ's sake. Then again, at least he wasn’t naked.
He gave a frustrated, grunting sigh, running a hand through his hair. He looked up at the ceiling and slowly the anger ebbed out of him, leading back into the total blankness he was so familiar with. He knew his mood swings well enough to know that he was kind of in the eye of the storm; he'd had one freak out, and now he was empty, but waiting on the other side was, inevitably, more panic, unless he could distract himself out of it. But with all his stuff gone, his options were severely limited.
He had no laptop, no video games, no phone, no music… The only things he had for entertainment in the house were a bunch of books in two giant bookcases in the entrance hall, novels that had probably been bought by the owners or left behind by other renters. He'd glanced through them when he first came - a pretty solid variety, everything from classic literature to young adult, though there was a surprising amount of Stephen King. There weren't any movies, but the house did have cable… So at least there was that.
Stiles got up and looked out to the porch, noticing Derek wasn't there anymore. Stiles stood right in front of the window and squinted out. He saw someone with the same dark hair as Derek standing ankle-deep in the water, a pile of what was probably clothes and shoes further up on the shore.
Whatever. If Derek wanted to be immature and play the avoidance game, Stiles was more than qualified to play back. Stiles was the master of avoidance, read: the whole reason he ended up here.
Stiles felt like he was in a dark pit, yet again, only this time he was dead and had no real reason to try to fight his way out of it.
He tried passing time with the books, and to some degree was successful. But the desire to just curl into the couch and stare blankly at the TV that apparently didn’t work when you were dead was more overpowering when there wasn't anything to make himself do.
The whole schedule he'd worked out for himself, with the waking up at a certain time, cooking, eating, forcing himself into activities, getting some exercise, back to sleep at a reasonable hour - all of that was apparently shot to hell when you were dead. He didn't need to eat, there was no point in exercising, and the books only held his interest for so long.
So, more often than not, and for long stretches of time that he wasn't proud of, he just lay on his side on the couch and drifted, which was exactly what he was doing right then.
He thought some about what his funeral must have been like. Probably some people from high school, some people from college. Maybe his advisor, Mr. Hanerman, and his hippie wife Flowers. He somehow doubted his mother's sister's family flew out from Virginia to California, especially since they'd stopped having any real relations with Stiles and Dad once Mom died. His aunt was 7 years older than Mom was, and they’d never been very close as sisters to begin with.
Did Scott say anything at the graveside? God, he was probably devastated, even if he and Stiles had been somewhat on the outs lately. And Lydia, what would she do? Odds were she’d be pissed at Stiles, angry at him for leaving, angry at herself for the last thing she said to him being "I can't help you if you don't want to be helped." He wished he could tell her that hearing that was what made him take that first big step, made him go back to his therapist. He was grateful to her. She was a good friend, and the last thing he wanted was for her to feel like she'd abandoned him.
Stiles felt like he should want to cry when he thought of never talking to them again, of never being better and able to be back in their lives as a stable and reliable friend. Hell, he'd probably never even see them again.
He wondered if he’d eventually forget what they looked like.
He rolled onto his back, looked at where a crack was forming in the paint on the ceiling. What did they bury him with? He hoped they put the keys to the Jeep in his pocket. Everything else was already divided among friends and people who'd influenced him. When Dad died and Stiles was at his lowest, he'd privately had a will drawn up. That was right after he found out what he'd inherited from Dad and insurance, and if he’d ended up doing himself in like he was feeling so inclined to, he wanted to at least leave behind help for the people he loved.
A shadowy movement caught his eye, and he twisted his head around to see Derek picking up his own book and standing from the dining room table to head back out to the beach. He stripped off his shirt as he went, and he’d apparently already taken his boots off, as the tell-tale clomping was absent.
Stiles huffed in annoyance. He was annoyed by Derek's whole… being, and even more annoyed that the level of annoyance he had didn't cancel out the strange attraction he had to the douche. This was not only annoying, but really confusing, considering romantic or sexual (hell even a general) interest in other people hadn't featured in his thoughts as more than a “I should probably want to flirt with and/or have sex with this person” since everything went to hell. There was a spark he felt when looking at Derek that he hadn’t felt in a long damn time, and it was extremely frustrating.
It was especially annoying to have annoyance be the strongest feeling he had that wasn’t sadness, anxiety, or fury.
So, he’d admit that, okay, sure, between thoughts of his death, his past, and general floating depression, his thoughts sometimes, maybe, occasionally, drifted to his new permanent housemate. Seriously though, not that often.
But when they did happen to wander in that direction, Stiles had more than a few questions, and about zero way to answer any of them.
It started with still being sort of focused on the desire to know how long Derek had been there. He'd had a minor freak out about Derek possibly seeing Stiles' multiple panic attacks while he'd been at the house, or doing something creepy, like watching him shower or sleep, but Derek didn't seem to pay attention to much of anything, and Stiles knew he wasn't actually interesting enough to pique the curiosity of the brick wall that was Derek.
He wanted to know how Derek died. Where in the house he'd died. Did he have a family? Friends? Any kind of life at all? He seemed like the type of asshole that people avoided, because he came off as mean and unhelpful and rude and frustrating and just. Ugh.
What the hell was his damage, anyway? They didn’t even know each other, there was no reason to be as big of a dick as he'd been when Stiles first… woke up, and then he'd way overreacted when Stiles gave him a taste of his own medicine. Dude had barely even acknowledged Stiles' existence since then, and when he did look at Stiles, his face was completely unreadable. But sightings of Derek were few and far between. He seemed to always be leaving whatever room Stiles entered, and spent long stretches of time of outside, lying around on the beach or standing in the ocean as far out as he could.
He wondered if Derek was drifting when he was out there, much like Stiles lay drifting while camped out on the couch.
Stiles had to admit that, while his annoyance with Derek was annoying (har har), his interest in Derek was kind of a relief, a nice break from feeling like he was just spiraling downward in a double helix of blankness and crushing sadness, with no end in sight. Even if it was mild anger (not rage fits, thank you god) and annoyance, it was nice to feel something other than what he’d dubbed “the void.” And he wondered, could he get more out of it?
He just wanted to feel things again.
He had enough curiosity that he found himself abruptly sitting up, paying full attention as Derek went out onto the porch and disappeared down the steps. Jaw tightening in resolve as he finally gave in to the itch to know more, Stiles followed him out.
He found Derek rummaging around the storage closet underneath the house, and paused for a moment to admire the curve of Derek's ass as he bent over to pick up a beach chair. Stiles was casually leaning against one of the support pillars when Derek turned and noticed him, and Stiles savored the note of irritation on his face.
"So, I was wondering," Stiles started, glancing at the ground for a second, only to look up and see Derek begin to wander past him. Okay, so the ignoring game was still on. Awesome. "Just hang on a minute, would you? I'm trying to hand you an olive branch here. It's not like either of us is going anywhere, and I'd like to not spend the rest of forever talking to myself, leading to eventual madness and a real haunting of this place."
"Better talking yourself into being crazy than both of us," Derek replied, not bothering to stop or face Stiles. Stiles shot the bird at his back before stepping up his pace to move around and stand in front of Derek, blocking his path.
"Okay, look. I get that you have, like, issues. Everybody has issues, and I also get that your thing is to be a rude dick-"
"If you're trying to make peace you're doing a pretty shitty job so far."
"-by doing things such as interrupting people who are speaking to you, but we're stuck here, buddy, and I'm kind of tired of the weirdo mixture of tension and pretending I don't exist. It depresses me," Stiles said, maybe a little more honest than he’d meant to be.
Derek snorted, moving his gaze purposefully past Stiles before stepping around him and continuing toward the shore. "I'm not the one who's making you depressed, you brought that baggage here the second you drove up to the house."
Stiles felt slapped, and anger started stirring below the surface of his thoughts. He tried, half-succeeding, to push it down. "Okay, point, but I have my reasons for being as fucked as I am. At least I don't let them turn me into an asshole."
But Derek didn't have to know that.
"No, they just turn you into someone who loses it at least three times a day with no discernible trigger," Derek responded, and though his face remained impassive, Stiles felt like he was being sneered at, which made him bristle and start to tip over into losing it - but in anger, this time.
"What the fuck, man? Seriously?" Stiles shook his head. "No, you know what, what the fuck is your problem? What's got your panties in such a fucking twist that you can say something like that to me?"
Derek finally stopped, but instead of looking at Stiles, he started unfolding the beach chair. Stiles almost literally kicked his ass to send him toppling face forward into the sand, but before he could make the decision to actually do it, Derek straightened up and turned to face him, eyebrows furrowed in irritation.
"Look. We," Derek gestured back and forth between them, "Are dead. Just because we're stuck in the same place does not make us friends. And that's my problem."
Stiles eyed him for a moment, really not understanding what Derek was trying to say.
"So are you saying that your problem is that we're not friends…? Because that's what I got from that. You seriously need to work on using your words so people can understand you."
Derek's jaw ticked, and it took a second before he responded.
"My problem is that you're here. My problem is that since you've gotten here, all you've done is mope around the house and have fits, and now you're stuck here with me forever, and all you’ll probably do is continue to mope around and have fits. All I wanted after I died was to be left alone, but now you've been dumped on me. So, go figure, I’m choosing to ignore you."
Buttons all pushed.
The blood around Stiles’ brain was reaching boiling point, his face flushing hot and his eyes burning. He felt like his throat was swollen, but when he swallowed the knot away, it was like unstopping emotions that had been buried deep, and all the anger came blasting out.
"Mope and have fits?! Mope and... Fuck you! They're panic attacks, asshole, and I've been out of my mind depressed, just, fuck you, you have no right to comment on any of my shit. None! It's not my fucking fault! I can't fucking control it! Do you have any idea what it's like to be at the mercy of your own head, to deal with shit that pulls and pushes at you so you're always on the brink of going off the fucking the wall? I can't even function like a goddamn normal human being, fuck me then, look at Stiles, just mopes around the house and has fits. Not like he's completely alone in the world or anything! Not like he's fighting himself every step of the way! It's not like he has to make himself consciously take each step, every minute of every fucking day!
"I'm a sack of shit, I hate myself, but I bust my ass to try and get better so I can make up with the people I left behind while I had my little pity party. So you can take your judgmental bullshit and shove it up your ass. If you lived with the knowledge that your existence killed the only family you had, if you knew that you broke your best friend by telling him to fuck off every time he just tried to talk to you, if you'd completely blown your life because you're too much of a fucking wreck to deal with anything, yeah, you'd mope and have fits too."
Stiles was panting by the time he was done with his rant, and was embarrassed when he noticed that his cheeks were wet. He wouldn't give Derek the satisfaction of seeing him wipe at his eyes, the asshole, who was… Just watching Stiles.
Stiles held under Derek's intense gaze, not daring to relax the tension he felt throughout his entire body. It was Derek who broke their little contest, glancing down and then out to the ocean for a moment, before returning his attention to Stiles.
Derek took a step forward, and, impossibly, Stiles felt himself tense further. When Derek's hand rose and fell on Stiles' shoulder, a gentle touch out of frickin’ nowhere, what the hell, Stiles felt himself flinch and then deflate a little. Derek grasped him more firmly, and leaned in, looking directly into Stiles' eyes.
"You're not the only person who’s ever been through this. People survive; it's what they do."
Stiles clenched his jaw and shrugged Derek's hand away roughly.
"You think I don’t know that?" he spat. "I'm perfectly aware of how weak I am for not being able to keep it together."
Derek stepped back, turned and faced out toward the ocean again.
"It's not weakness," he said. Stiles waited, but that seemed to be all he was going to say. Stiles looked out at the ocean as well, fizzling with annoyance and the adrenaline after-shocks of raging, unable to keep looking at Derek.
"Well, it's not like it matters much anymore," he said, letting out a shaky, bitter huff of laughter. "I'm already dead."
Two days of less-hostile-but-still-there silence later, Stiles was working his way through No Exit (it was kind of fitting, really) when he thought he heard a car pull up the gravel driveway. He set his book on his chest and listened closely, and sure enough, a car door slammed shut. Someone was there.
Another renter? Well, this was going to be weird. And shitty, if Stiles had to give up his couch.
He heard heavy footfalls as Derek ran up the back steps and burst through the backdoor. Stiles blinked at him in surprise, shooting up from the couch, and Derek glanced at him briefly before turning around to close the - to close the already closed door.
Wait. Since when did doors start closing on their own around here? Stiles had to do every goddamn thing himself, and if Derek had been holding out on him, if he’d been able to do shit with his mind this whole time, they were going to have words.
But not at this very moment, because as Stiles eyed him, took in his curled fists and his glower, a nervous feeling sparked a shiver through his body.
What the hell?
Stiles heard keys jangling, and in the next second a pretty brunette woman shoved open the front door and made her way inside.
She seemed distracted, balancing coffee, keys, and a stack of papers. She dropped everything on the dining room table and unzipped her messenger bag, pulling out a laptop.
Stiles looked back to Derek, who was noticeably tense, and looking a little crazy in the eyes. His fists were clenched at his sides, and he stared steadily at the woman, who, upon closer inspection, had the same coloring, nose, and cheekbones as Derek.
“She related to you?” Stiles asked, gesturing to the woman. Derek glanced at him briefly before exhaling through his nose and turning to brace himself on the counter. His shoulders were so tense Stiles bet they’d actually make a noise if he knocked on them.
“She’s my sister,” Derek ground out, “Laura.”
As Stiles moved into the kitchen, he noticed Derek’s knuckles had gone white from his crushing grip on the counter.
Stiles turned back to the woman - Derek’s sister, Laura - and watched her as she went to work on whatever it was she was doing. He tried to think of a way to diffuse the tension he felt radiating from Derek, but what the hell did you say to someone that pissed off about seeing a family member? Sorry you’re dead, sucks you can’t talk anymore? Somehow he didn’t think that’d go over well.
Laura put on some music, something abstract, probably the score from a movie or something, and Derek turned and grabbed the hideous decorative bird statue and hurled it against the wall. Stiles winced, expecting a loud impact and possible breakage, but there was nothing. When he looked back, the bird statue was sitting like it’d never been moved, and Derek had deflated from furious to frustrated.
Laura paused the music, looking around briefly, brows furrowed. She shook her head a little, and then turned back to her work, tapping away for another moment before shutting the laptop. She picked up the second bag she’d brought in with her, taking out a fancy-looking camera and a contracted tripod. It was quiet as she set up, and Stiles started to itch with questions. But, surprisingly, Derek beat him to breaking the silence.
“She hates being here, but she’d rather do it herself than hire someone else," he said quietly. Stiles looked back at him, seeing more clearly the anger in Derek that had been visible, but below the surface, ever since they’d met.
“So she owns the house?” Stiles asked, trying to keep the questions light, despite burning with curiosity.
“Now she does,” Derek said bitterly.
Stiles wasn’t sure what else to say for a moment, but somehow he felt like he needed to keep Derek talking. There was something about right now that felt important, almost like that feeling that he’d gotten that time he’d been that close to missing a flight, only this weighed more heavily because he knew the next one might never come.
“Then you weren’t just some renter... This place was yours.”
“Partially. Mom left it to both of us,” Derek said, shifting his gaze from Laura down to the counter. His face suddenly contorted, and he kicked out hard against the cabinets, but his foot never connected and there wasn’t any sound. “I can’t even fucking let her know I’m here!” he spat, slamming his fist on the counter, but again, making no connection and no noise. He looked up at Stiles, eyes wild and nostrils flared. “Nothing works! Nothing! I’ve thrown things, beat things, screamed myself hoarse, but there isn’t a damn thing she notices. It all stays the same!”
Stiles hesitantly walked closer to Derek, who was breathing heavily, cheeks flushed from frustration and anger. After a moment he closed his mouth and hung his head, but Stiles could see the clench of his teeth in the tension of his jaw.
It was the most expression Stiles had seen from Derek. He was a little scared, but too fascinated to just back away and let him explode privately.
There was a nasty part of him that told him to evil-smirk at Derek, watch him have a fit so he could throw Derek’s own fucked up words back at him. Stiles definitely hadn’t been below that sort of behavior in the past. But there was still that niggling feeling of the importance of everything that was happening here. The kinder side of Stiles was overpowering any negativity, and that was what pulled at him, what made him keep stepping closer until he was standing next to Derek, who locked eyes with Stiles as he felt him approach. They just looked at each other for a moment, Stiles finally breaking eye contact when he turned around, facing where Laura was snapping pictures around the living room and dining area. His eyes followed her movements, and he really saw the resemblance between her and Derek, both in their features and mannerisms.
“Maybe it’s better if she doesn’t know,” Stiles ventured, quietly. “What good would it do? You can’t leave; she can’t hear you. It’d just be like... torture, for both of you,” Stiles said, glancing at Derek, whose face was hard but his body less tense.
“She’s alone. I left her alone,” Derek said, eyes fixed on Laura. “She doesn’t have anymore family.”
Stiles didn’t say anything for a moment, thinking about how he’d felt so isolated when Dad was gone, when it’d finally settled in his gut that the only family he had left was across the country and hadn’t even made it to the funeral. But tailing those thoughts were the thoughts of his own progress that he’d been making in moving on, before he died himself. And then he thought back on something Derek had said to him before.
“She’ll survive, man. Remember what you told me? People survive, it’s what they do.”
Derek leaned down on the counter again, bracing his forearms, eyes shut.
“You don’t get it. It’s my fault. Everything. It’s my fault they’re gone, it’s my fault that she broke down in the fall out. I got them killed, I broke her down, and now I’ve left her alone.”
Stiles watched Derek carefully, but Derek stayed very still, breathing now shallow.
There was something about the way that Derek looked that made Stiles want to blurt out his own story. He got the feeling that he’d worn the same expression Derek was, and he found that comforting. It pulled at his chest, made him feel like there were things he needed to say, right then, that this was a moment he needed.
Stiles took a deep breath, getting ready to tear open wounds that had barely scabbed over.
“My parents are dead because of me,” he started, turning his eyes away from Derek, not able to look at him as he went into this. He kept his eyes on the opposite wall as he continued, “Or, that’s what I’ve been telling myself ever since Mom died. I was kind of a fucked up kid... I acted out a lot. I was, like, the definition of ADHD, but on steroids. I was restless, pulled all kinds of stunts that got me in a lot of trouble, basically caused my parents more stress than quadruplets.
“Mom was a smoker. She’d started when she was 15, and quit when she was 27, when they were trying to have a baby. She started again when I turned four, and it got heavier the worse I was. I hated that she did it, and back then I didn’t really correlate that stress was what made her. I did shit like hide her packs or break all the cigarettes, because every kid knows that smoking is bad for you. She never got on to me for doing it though, like maybe she knew I was just trying to be helpful. She loved me, seriously. And I loved her, too. I remember wanting to be a good kid... I don’t know why I was so shitty at it.
“Dad tried to get her to quit, too, especially when the hacking coughs started up. I remember sneaking downstairs, and sometimes Dad would be sleeping on the couch because Mom coughed in her sleep. When she went to the doctor, big surprise, cancer. She started treatment, but all it did was make her die slower,” Stiles took a shaky breath, rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and pulled everything in him together to keep going. “I didn’t fully get what was happening. I was nine. But I did know that she got sick because she smoked, and about a month before she died I was watching TV in her hospital room, and some lady on some show started talking about how she wanted to quit smoking, but she was just too stressed out from work and the kids and her crazy friendships or something.
“That was when the pieces fell into place. I was essentially the reason Mom was dying. I stressed her out, I made her smoke, it was I blamed myself, and even though Dad said I shouldn’t, that it wasn’t me, I knew it was. That’s when the panic attacks started, when I had to get into therapy, and they told me it wasn’t my fault, but I still knew. So that was one parent.”
Stiles glanced at Derek, and saw he was watching him, expression as unreadable as ever. It was a little weird getting no feedback from Derek, but somehow it almost made it easier to spill his guts. Feeling a little more confident, but draining fast emotionally, Stiles pushed on.
“Then there’s Dad. Dad, who was left alone with this fucked up kid who was not only hyper with behavior problems, but now had mental issues to top that off. He didn’t know what to do. He took me to a special psychiatrist, someone his friend had recommended, and they put me on low doses of Wellbutrin until I could get a better grip on the freak-outs and depression. It ended up helping some with the ADHD issues, too, which was good, and when I came off it they put me on Adderall. I got better, got better grades, got rid of most of the behavioral problems. Dad and I did our best to move on, but... Dad was still wearing his wedding ring a year ago, when he died. I buried him with it on his finger, even though he left it to me in his will.” Stiles stopped, feeling his throat squeeze and his eyes and nose tingle. He took a deep breath, but he still felt like he was being strangled. When he looked at Derek, their eyes met and held, and, slowly, he felt himself start to relax, the invisible grip on his throat loosening. There was an openness in Derek’s face where there definitely hadn’t been before, and it helped Stiles’ tension drain from him.
“What happened?” Derek prompted. Stiles broke eye contact and looked down at the floor.
“I’d stopped most of the drinking junior year of college, because Dad was worried and I didn’t want to stress him, he already had a bad heart, and god knows I’d put him through enough over the years. And it was so fucking stupid, but I was at this party last year, and Scott’s date got completely trashed. Since I was their ride, I ended up taking them home early, which, cool, right? I’d only had like two beers. But I got busted because I pulled a rolling stop, and bam, got a DUI.
“Nobody had the money to bail me, so I ended up having to call Dad at, like, midnight to get the bail money, and he was so pissed that he told me he was coming down on his next day off so he could personally tear me a new asshole.” Stiles stopped, wiped a hand down his face and rested it as his throat, where he massaged the lump there same as he fought the tears in his eyes. “He didn’t make it, because halfway there some idiot texting flew across the median and broke his own neck and my killed my Dad on impact,” Stiles had to stop again, this time tears prickling too hard at his eyes, and when he blinked, they spilled. Derek stayed quiet, waiting, and Stiles continued on, words breaking. “I had to identify the body. And after that, after I lost him, after, once again, it was my fault that I’d lost someone I love, the only real family I had left, I just fucking fell apart. Slowly, but fuck did I. I lost my friends, I flunked out of grad school, I drank myself sick like every day. I was depressed as fuck and numb, and if I wasn’t that, I was angry. I finally got a kick in the ass, and called 911 to check myself into inpatient because I was a hair away from popping a bottle of aspirin and chasing it with a fifth of vodka.
“In that psych ward was the first time I’d told anyone since I was 11 that I still believed it was me, that I killed Mom, and by then, Dad. And the people there kept drilling it into my head that it wasn’t my fault, that Mom’s decisions were her own and with Dad... sometimes bad shit just happens. I sorta got through feeling like a murderer and started handling things a little better. And I know now, logically, that it wasn’t me. But you’ve seen me. Doesn’t matter if I’m having a panic attack or if I’m on that fucking couch like a zombie, I’m always thinking about how it’s all my fault.
“Maybe one day I’ll believe it isn’t. Fuck, that was what I was working toward before I died in this stupid house. But I do know if I don’t stop, I’m gonna really go crazy. I’m gonna be more miserable than I’ve ever been, and though sometimes I don’t care, I know I shouldn’t want that.” Stiles paused a minute, looking down at his feet and giving a rueful smile. “It’s... Kinda pointless now, isn’t it?” He looked back up, meeting Derek’s eyes. “But I’m fucking sick of it, and I bet you’re sick of your shit, too.”
Stiles couldn’t hold the eye contact long, and quickly turned his head back down, rubbing at his eyes and trying to compose himself. He felt raw, like he’d just been skinned and was waiting for someone to either dump salt on the exposed flesh or put a healing balm on it. He was drained, suddenly exhausted. He found that he simultaneously did and didn’t care about what Derek thought, what he would say in response to Stiles’ story.
When he looked up, Derek was watching him closely, and Laura was still taking pictures in the background. He looked a little skeptical, a little confused, a little vulnerable, like maybe he wanted to tell his own story, but wasn’t sure what was compelling him to do so. Stiles held him in an intense gaze for what felt like a long, long time, but right when Derek opened his mouth there was a crashing noise that had them both jumping and Laura yelling in surprise.
“Shit! Shit, just... Shit.” She cursed from the front hall, and Derek made his way around the counter into the den to see what’d happened. Stiles hesitated, then followed, curious, only to see Laura standing with her face in her hands and the camera smashed on the floor. She was shaking, like she was sobbing, but when she looked up after several moments, her eyes were dry despite her flushed face.
Derek made to reach for her, but curled his hand back toward himself before he could make contact, and Stiles realized that he couldn’t touch her. He suddenly felt like an intruder, seeing the devastation followed by anger that twisted Derek’s face as he was forced to see how fragile his sister was, with no way to help keep her together.
She took a deep breath and started picking up the pieces scattered across the floor, taking them to the counter and spreading them out to look at the damage. Derek stayed where he was, and looked hard at where the camera itself was still attached to the base of the tripod, as if he could mentally blow it up for causing sudden distress to Laura. Stiles didn’t say anything, just stared at the broken camera with Derek, waiting for what was next with uncertainty as well as a patience he didn’t know he possessed.
“I don’t know how I died,” Derek said on an exhale, sounding breathy, tired. “I woke up one day in the front yard, and when I couldn’t find my phone, I went for the landline. But all I could hear was static,” he said, eyes sort of glazed over. He looked frustrated, and he spoke slowly, like he had to think over his words before he could get them out. “My car was gone, and all the lawn equipment I’d been using had been put up. I didn’t... I didn’t get it until I tried to leave, to walk next door and see if I could borrow a phone to call Laura. You can guess what happened when I did that.
“No one came for at least a week. I tried everything I could think of - swimming out into the ocean, walking out either way to the sides of the beach, through the yards, anything I could do to leave. But nothing worked.” Derek paused there, exhaled harshly with his nostrils flared wide, lips pursed. Stiles immediately thought of like ten different “constipated” jokes, but even he knew that saying shit like that at a time like this would ruin his whole afterlife. “Finally, one day, Laura came by with some guy who wanted to write about the history of the house. That... was the worst. Because I did everything, everything I could to get her attention, but I couldn’t move anything, couldn’t make any noise, and she couldn’t hear me, even when I was screaming.
“They didn’t stay for that long, just long enough for her to give the tour and the rundown of everything, but I felt like I was going crazy. And she was-” Derek stopped, and though his face didn’t change, Stiles could see him swallow harshly, and knew that he was fighting back some heavy emotion. “She looked like she wasn’t all there. Like she’d lost something, like something had finally killed off that last piece of her that was there after the fire. And that’s when I knew that I was dead.”
Derek looked away from the camera, eyes coming to rest on Laura’s back. “Breaking a camera never would have made her cry before. She’d curse the thing, curse the floor, maybe smash it a little more,” Derek said, then huffed a dark laugh. “We both had some anger issues after we lost everyone, but she’d always come out of her anger with a joke, while I just... Stayed angry. She made fun of me, called me stupid pet nicknames that used the word “frown,” and she was the only one who could get me to laugh,” Derek turned and met Stiles’ eyes. “I didn’t deserve to laugh anymore, but she wanted me to. And when I couldn’t, she’d get this look on her face like it was breaking her down. So I tried to get it together, for her at least,” he looked away again. “Then I just ended up dead, and now she’s alone. No one survived the fire, and now I’m gone, and it’s my fault.”
Stiles waited, not sure if Derek was going to continue. He’d mentioned a fire a few times now, and Stiles didn’t have to be a genius to guess that that was how his family died, but he was curious to know why Derek seemed to blame himself for both the fire and his own death. Especially since he said he didn’t know how he’d died... Seriously, how could he blame himself for that if he didn’t know?
Laura came back into the front hall and picked up the camera and tripod, disconnecting the two and putting them both back into the camera bag. She left, and a moment later returned with a broom and dustpan.
Stiles took the time to look at her, to really try and read her face for evidence of a loss. And he could see it clearly, noticed shadows like bruises under her eyes, saw the blotchiness in her complexion, like she hadn’t been eating right or drinking enough water, or... drinking too much alcohol. Her cheekbones stuck out too sharply, and he could see the bones beneath her forehead, and though she was wearing clothes too baggy to really tell, he guessed that she was underweight, too.
Stiles took a moment to think, feeling himself itch with questions, but he knew he’d have to be careful about how he asked them if he didn’t want to set Derek into a negative spiral. Everything felt so damn delicate, like he was walking on a tightrope made out of thread, but he couldn’t deny that he wanted to walk it, because he felt like on the other side was something he really wanted. He couldn’t say what, exactly, but he felt like he was reaching for something, and that in and of itself, the fact that he was trying for something and not just letting the world pass by, was enough to make him want to keep going. He wanted to do this right.
“I know this is kind of stupid to say, but it’s not your fault that you died,” Stiles said, watching Laura methodically sweep up the smaller broken bits and pieces of camera. “You can’t blame yourself for something that you didn’t do.” And here Stiles quirked a half smile, though he didn’t look at Derek, and said, “Maybe if I say it enough, it’ll drill into your head same as I try to do mine.”
Derek didn’t move, just kept his eyes fixed on Laura, but Stiles saw his jaw clench a little, though otherwise he was just frowning.
“I know it doesn’t really help to hear it,” Stiles began. “Hell, I just got done explaining all my shit to you, and you know I still have trouble believing it. But step one is somebody telling you like it is, that it really isn’t your fault.
“The other truth bomb I’m gonna drop on you right now is that she’ll get better. You said it, remember? So know it. She’s in a bad place right now, but after I hit my lowest, after I really lost everything, I did end up choosing to keep going. And it looks like she’s done the same, that she’s just keepin’ on goin’, little engine that faced a freak blizzard and tornado and carried cargo twice its capacity up freaking Mt. Everest and still could. She’s fragile, but she’s not broken. And you know what else I think?” Stiles paused for just a bare second, worried that he’d lose the courage and resolve to say what he wanted to. “I think that you’re not broken, either. Cracked, frayed, tattered, blah blah, yeah,” and here he turned, looked directly at Derek, who met his eyes with a somewhat hostile look. “But not broken.”
Derek eyed him, practically gave him the stink eye, but Stiles could see the moment where he mentally threw his hands in the air, giving up, and Stiles congratulated himself.
“I hate that I can’t even tell you that you don’t know the first thing about being broken or... Cracked, or whatever, or that you don’t know anything about guilt,” Derek said, looking annoyed. “But I’m not that much of an asshole.”
Stiles smiled at him. “Good, because otherwise I’d have to kick your ass, and I have zero clue of how a ghostly spirit fight would even work, and I’m really not all that inclined to find out whether or not the fact that you have significantly more muscle mass than I do would still have an effect in this situation.”
Derek huffed at him, and Stiles didn’t know if it even counted as a laugh, because Derek’s face turned hard again.
“Maybe it’s not my fault I’m dead. But everything else, all the other things that make her hurt... Those are my fault. If I just hadn’t-” he cut himself off, clenching his jaw again, and Stiles saw him grind his teeth for a second. “One of my girlfriends burned my house down, with 12 people - my entire family - inside.”
Derek said the words like they’d been ripped from somewhere deep inside him, like he’d taken out his core and laid it out for Stiles to see. Stiles was frozen for a moment, breath caught mid-intake, but soon enough he was in motion again, finishing the inhale and then exhaling “Damn,” forcefully. Derek was quiet as Stiles composed his thoughts.
“She used you to attack your family,” he said, finally. Derek nodded, a jerk of his head, his eyes staring hard at Laura. “Derek. Look at me," Stiles said firmly. He waited for a long moment before Derek turned his eyes on him, and Stiles met the defensiveness there with an offense that he hoped Derek wasn’t expecting. “It’s okay to be pissed off. It’s okay to be sad or depressed or wanna to rip somebody limb from limb and stab your pillow with a pocket knife. It’s okay to feel like something in you died, or that you’re drowning and taking down everyone around you with it. But here’s the real pisser, and one I fucking laughed at the first time I heard it: feelings aren’t facts, man. I know you feel like the world’s biggest grade-A asshole for trusting a psycho, but it’s not like you knew. Just because you blame yourself doesn’t make it your fault, and the sooner you and I both realize that about our personal shit, the sooner we can stop being so fucking angry and dead inside.”
They watched each other for a long time, and Stiles felt like he’d just won a war and now they were signing the treaty. It wasn’t until they heard Laura’s keys jangle as she picked them up from the dining table that they broke away from each other, and together they watched her leave.
“Easier said than done,” Derek said as Laura pulled out of the driveway. Stiles looked sideways at him and smiled crookedly.
“Tell me about it.”