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The groundskeeper has gnarled, knotted fingers and rheumy eyes, and it takes five hundred years for him to turn the key in the rusted padlock.  The gate creaks almost as loud as his bones, and Derek flicks an ear in irritation.

“That’s a big dog you’ve got there,” he says, only mildly curious.

Stiles buries one hand in the scruff around Derek’s neck. “Not sure he is one,” he says, and Derek cocks his head up at him.

Scott has the van idling behind them.

Derek takes a deep breath and sneezes. Decay, old blood, and sulfur flood his senses—he whines softly. He doesn’t have a good feeling about this.

The old house looms in front of them, stone and spires, ominous, cloaked in shadows thrown by the nearly full moon. His skin ripples under his fur, uneasy, and he tucks his tail between his legs.

“Relax,” Stiles murmurs to him. “This is easy money, right? A simple salt and burn.”

Derek huffs, knocks into Stiles’ side as he hastily turns around, and then slinks back to the van. He doesn’t like this place. He never likes haunted places, too much lingering despair that stirs up old guilt, but this house feels like it’s made out of skeleton bones, dread sits like a stone in his belly.

Lydia already has the side of the van open. He hops in, slides past Kira, and then digs into Stiles’ open duffle, buries his snout in an old t-shirt that smells a little bit like Scott, too.

“Dude,” Stiles says when he climbs in after him. “Come on.”

Derek growls, low in his throat, and Stiles backs off with a huffy, “Fine, be that way.”

The van grinds into gear and rolls forward slowly, tires bumping over the cobblestone drive, and Derek feels like his chest is caving in.

*

Stiles doesn’t know why he gets to be Keeper of the Wolf: official title. Wolf doesn’t seem to particularly like any of them,  is the thing, except Stiles is generally the only person he’ll even remotely listen to—barring Scott’s Alpha Voice, which he rarely, if ever, uses—and more often than not Wolf just… follows Stiles around.

It’s not like Stiles can’t guess who he is. He’s a traumatized Hale relation, obviously, since they found him two months ago living in filth and sadness in the shell of the old Hale house—and hadn’t that been a fun job, with a half-feral werewolf trying to thwart all their plans to lay the Hales to rest. Granted, they’d been hired by a contractor to help tear the place down. The ghosts were the peaceful part of that deal.

Nobody had warned them about the locally famed Demon Wolf that guarded the place.

They’d had a couple things to their advantage, though. The really big one being Scott’s True Alpha status, and the astoundingly effective way it made Wolf come to heel. Their backup plan had included Kira calling down lightning and Stiles’ stash of mountain ash, and he’s really happy they didn’t actually have to use that, in retrospect.

Wolf has a sensitive nose and a deep-seated fear of thunderstorms.

This house, the North Mansion, has been languishing on the real estate market for over five years, and the current owner’s sick of all potential buyers getting chased off.

It could be raccoons—that’s happened before—but going by Wolf’s reaction, Stiles is leaning a little more toward malicious poltergeist.

He rubs his hands together in anticipation as they pull up to the top of the curved drive. They haven’t had a good old exorcism for a while. This is going to be fun.

*

Even though Derek wants to hide away in the van for the entire job, he only hesitates a moment to follow when everyone else clambers out. He keeps low to the ground, gaze dipped, and seeks out Stiles by scent.

Stiles rubs one of his ears between his fingers, and Derek noses the back of his knee.

Lydia says, “Huh,” and Derek finally looks up just in time to see her stuff her phone back into the purse she has slung over her shoulder.

“What?” Kira says, glancing around wildly. “Does anyone else think this house is, like, extra creepy?”

Derek woofs in agreement.

And then the door slowly creaks open on its own.

Stiles says, “Cool,” with a stupid amount of enthusiasm, and Derek bites into his jeans to keep him from just flouncing inside.  “Ow, what the fuck, dude?”

Stiles tries to shake him off, but Derek feels like he’s being watched, the hair down the middle of his back bristles, and his lips open up into a soundless snarl around the caught denim.

Kira’s eyes flare orange and a light beyond the doorway flickers on.

“No, wait,” Scott says, a hand on Lydia’s arm. “What do you mean by huh?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Lydia says, hands on her hips. She looks at the open door, tilts her head back to gaze up the slick, moss covered stone. “Ask me again after we step inside.”

There’s an elaborate wolf head carved into a knocker on the door, elongated canines carefully fit around a metal ring.

Derek’s ears flatten against his head. He can hear the echo of phantom howls, and he lets go of Stiles’ jeans to press closer to his legs.

Stiles stumbles under his weight, says, “Whoa, Wolf,” and lets him huddle between his feet, hastily balancing into a crouch over him.

Derek only relaxes minutely under the hands on his head and back.

Something wrong happened here.

There are too many dead, and all of them are angry.

*

Lydia freezes in the front foyer at the bottom of a wide staircase, eyes glazing over, fingers curled into Stiles’ arm. Her nails dig into his skin hard enough to cut, and he wraps his other hand around her wrist to ground her.

“What is it?” Scott says.

The air inside is cold. Stiles doesn’t hear the dead, not like Lydia, at least, but he can tell when the space is so packed with spirits no warmth can touch it.

He can see his breath, and Wolf shivers beside him.

It’s oppressive, and Wolf backs up onto his haunches, like he’s ready to bolt.

Lydia’s voice does the eerie doubling thing, like two of her are talking at once. “The wolves,” she says, words echoing off the marble tiled floor. “They slaughtered them all.”

“Hunters?” Stiles says. They’ve had the displeasure of coming across many a hunter over the past couple years—a ragtag group of supernaturals solving mysteries attracts an unsurprising amount of attention. They always leave an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

“No,” Lydia says, and then shakes off the voice with a slight stumble of step that she’s visibly annoyed by. She straightens and tugs down her shirt and clears her throat.

“Who was it?” Kira says. She’s poking around the light fixtures, and then the hallway to the left lights up, bulbs glowing one by one down the long corridor. She grins brightly and does a fist pump.

“I’m—” Lydia’s perfect brow wrinkles a little. “Wolves?”

Wolf’s ears suddenly prick up, and he lurches forward, nose in the air.

Scott’s fangs drop and his eyes flash red. He says, “Someone’s in here. Alive.”

*

All the lightbulbs explode at once, and Kira says, “Sorry,” just before Derek gets thrown back against a wall.

His head spins, there’s a pressure in his chest keeping him pinned in the corner of the foyer, paws scrambling uselessly on the floor.

Stiles yells, “Why do we always fucking do this at night, how come that’s a thing?” and then Derek’s temporarily blinded by the beams of three flashlights.

The vice grip on his chest travels up to his throat, invisible hands forcing his head back. He lets out a long, drawn out howl. And then the pressure’s just…gone.

Derek sags down onto the floor, heaving panting breaths, whole body wracked with spasms, and then buries his head in Stiles’ lap when he drops down in front of him.

“Hey, big guy, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Derek says, and then Stiles says, “Holy shit, you can talk!”

*

Officially, Scott and Stiles started off as supernatural debunkers. Shithead eighteen year olds with a couple gopros, a book of magic lore they’d ‘borrowed’ from Scott’s veterinarian ex-boss, and a YouTube channel. They guilted Scott’s dad into buying them a used van, downloaded a map of haunted places, and set off across the country for a gap year that stretched well past what their parents think is acceptable.

And then Scott got bit by a werewolf off highway 95, they accidentally set Kira free from an Arizona desert prison, and Lydia Martin, Stiles’ high intensity high school crush, called him up out of nowhere at 3 am one random Tuesday and nearly blew out his eardrums with a banshee scream and a death omen.

Stiles has business cards introducing himself as a mage, which started off as a token human joke and then got a whole lot real when he figured out how to make himself invisible by sheer wishing and willfulness.

Scott’s veterinarian ex-boss calls him a spark, but Stiles doesn’t feel like spending the money for a reprint.

They no longer film themselves. It’s all a little too damning.

And two months ago they acquired their very own Scooby to round out the mystery gang, never mind that it was a werewolf seemingly very happily stuck in a full shift—so of course, why not, why not have him talk.

“It’s like some storybook Gmork shit, you shouldn’t have the vocal chords for this,” Stiles says, absolutely fascinated as Wolf says, wearily, “Shut up, Stiles.”

“Could you always talk?” Stiles says.

Wolf gets to his feet and licks his chops. His mouth works open and closed, it’s so fucking weird, and then he says, hoarse, “No.”

*

Derek doesn't know what’s happening, but he knows it’s probably bad.

His throat feels raw and overworked, like something has rebuilt his insides. He fights down a rising panic, and then a vision in white, a woman that flickers between being viciously scarred and serenely pretty, appears in the middle of the stairs and smiles at him.

He can hear her heartbeat. It’s louder than anyone else’s in the room.

“There,” she says. “Isn’t that better?”

*

It’s probably really fucking strange that Stiles only notices that Kira and Scott and Lydia are no longer in the room with them when the scary lady starts talking.

Stiles holds up a hand. Salt works for ghosts, but ash works for creatures, and he’s not sure yet what he’s dealing with here.

She grins wider. “I’m sure we can all be nice,” she says. “After all, I did give poor Derek here back his voice.”

Derek, Stiles thinks. Derek Hale, the kid everyone thought actually set the Hale fire all those years ago. Huh.

Derek growls. “It was never missing,” he says. His mouth moves when he talks, and there’s a strange disconnect, like Stiles is watching something break and reform with every impossible word. Wolves’ mouths aren’t shaped for speaking.

“Oh, of course,” she says, face light. “But when you refuse to shift,” she shrugs, “we work with what we have.”

The bigger question, Stiles thinks, is why this crazy lady wants Derek to talk.

“Now, we can all sit down for a nice long chat later,” she says, and her eyeballs get full-on zombie white. “I need to find your meddling friends first.”

Stiles has a brief moment of relief that Scott and Kira and Lydia are purposely missing, hopefully working on a solution to this mess, and then everything goes black.

*

It’s cold, and Derek curls around Stiles, wriggling his head into Stiles’ chest so he’s nested up against him. Stiles’ warm breath and plodding heartbeat are reassuring.

They’re in the basement, thin planks of wood underneath them, loose boards to cover the dirt—it’s like laying on a block of ice.

The still air is dank, and Derek buries his head against rising whispers. Thin, reedy howls. Cries of anguish, pain, revenge.

She’s got an army of wolves in the house. They’re buried underneath the floorboards.

Stiles groans and shifts against him—his arms tighten around Derek’s neck and then release as he gingerly pushes up onto his elbows. “What happened?” he asks. “Where are we?”

“The basement,” Derek says.

“Crap. That’s never going to stop being weird.” Stiles pokes at Derek’s mouth and Derek snaps his teeth at him.

“Stop it.”

“Okay.” Stiles cradles his head in his hands. “Okay, so what’s the plan, big guy? Wait it out? Hope Scott smokes the lady and rescues us?”

Derek snorts.

Stiles stifles a laugh, says, “Right. Right.” He leans heavily against Derek. “Do we have any idea what’s going on here?”

The chill is tense and thick, like the wolves are standing guard.

Years ago, Derek remembers, certain packs had disappeared. Wiped entirely off the map, leaving gaping holes in the northern California territory.  His mom had been nervous about it. He doesn’t think this mass grave is a coincidence.

Derek sniffs the air and says, “Maybe.”

*

“Wolves,” Derek says, after pacing the length of the basement restlessly.

Stiles narrows his eyes and says, “What?”

Derek pads up to him, drops down close, so they’re touching again. “The ghosts are all werewolves,” he says, clearly irritated.

“Huh,” Stiles says. “So that’s what Lydia meant.” He props his back up against the cold concrete wall, rolls his shoulders against the rough texture and resists running his hand over the ache at the back of his head. 

Derek is a soothing wall of furry warmth next to him. Stiles curls his cold fingers into a fist to keep from petting him. He wouldn’t have hesitated before, but it’s a little weird now that he can talk.

“Ghost wolves, ghost lady—”

“She’s not a ghost,” Derek says. “I don’t know what she is, but she’s not dead.”

Probably magical then, Stiles thinks. In charge of ghost wolves and strong enough to take down Derek—Stiles has witnessed Wolf tear a chupacabra to shreds—“So… we’re thinking… witch?”

“The word you’re searching for is Darach, darling,” the woman in question says, feet soundless on the basement steps. “We’re a bit more specialized.” She pauses at the bottom, one hand on her hip, the other skimming lightly over the rickety-looking rail. “Now, Derek, tragically, I see you’re an alpha of none.” Her eyes are shrewd. “There seems to be a lot of that going around.”

Wisps of cool smoke swirl around her legs, coalescing here and there in snaps of teeth, furred snouts and paws with big-ass claws.

“Unfortunately, I can’t use you as bait.” She pouts, a parody of disappointment. “Despite quite a lot of nasty rumors, it seems you didn’t actually kill your entire pack.”

Derek snarls.

Stiles says, warily, “What are you talking about?”

The woman flickers, like a TV with a loose cable, and then her glamor drops to reveal a gray face full of scars, her head and neck slashed—her grin shows off blackened gums, and she says, “I’m talking about revenge.”

*

Derek shrinks away from the Darach when she leans toward him. He feels Stiles grip the fur on his back, an anchor, and forces his eyes wide when she crouches in front of them.

She says, “Tell me everything you know about Deucalion.”

Derek bares his teeth. “I don’t know anything.”

Stiles gives out a pained cry as she shoots an arm out, blindly squeezing a hand around his throat. Derek’s ears flatten against his skull, listening to the dry rasp of Stiles struggling to drag in a breath.

“Talia was a close friend,” she says, impassive. “Your mother was there when the hunters took his eyes.”

Derek had been fourteen and oblivious to almost everything except his first girlfriend. “I don’t know,” he says.

Stiles is choking to death, and the Darach isn’t even looking at him.

“Hmmmm,” she says, and then abruptly releases Stiles—he slumps over Derek, coughing—“Kali?”

Kali, Kali, Derek scrambles for anything, any bit of information he remembers, and blurts out, “She gave me condoms. Once.”

The Darach’s laugh is mean-edged, but breathless. “Julia gave you condoms,” she says, and then drags both hands over her eyes, her mouth; there’s a slump to her shoulders that has Derek freezing in place.

Stiles says, “Derek,” a croak in his voice, and Derek whimpers a warning for him to stay quiet.

“I could make you a man again,” she says, voice muffled.  She drops her hands and her glamor is suddenly back in place, brown, wavy hair framing a pale, delicate face. “Would you like that, Derek Hale?” Her fingers lightly play over the fur on Derek’s brow. “To be a real boy?”

“Leave him alone,” Stiles slurs.

She ignores him and says, “I bet you grew up fine.”

Derek doesn’t know how he grew up. Sometimes he doesn’t think he grew up at all. How many years has it been? Six? Ten? Twelve? Everything up to Stiles and Scott is pale gray and faded, like old newspaper ink.

“Don’t listen to her, Derek,” Stiles says, as the Darach clucks her tongue, eases fingers over Derek’s right ear.

“I wonder whose fault it really is,” she says idly, “that Argent burned your whole family alive.”

Derek pushes down the hurt and guilt, lets the wolf snap forward and snarl. He whips his head up, catches the thin skin of the Darach’s wrist between his teeth and shakes.

She laughs as he bites down, and pets his head with her other hand.

“Derek,” Stiles says, and Derek bristles, hunches down, coiled in anger with blood in his mouth. 

Derek,” Stiles says again louder, a hint of horror in his tone, and Derek shrugs off his grip, locks his jaws, feels the bones in his mouth crunch and splinter.

And then the Darach says, voice steady, “Good boy,” and Derek—he lets her go with a whimper and a gasp.

Good puppy, Kate would say. Good boy.

The Darach gets to her feet with a cloak of anger wrapped around her, finally turning to narrow her eyes at Stiles. And then:

The door at the top of the steps slams open; Derek’s ears ring from the echo of Lydia’s scream.  All the lights burn bright in a sizzle of sparks, and then Scott is slicing through the pack of ghost wolves with an iron fire poker as Kira summersaults through the air to cut off the Darach’s head with her sword.

Stiles says, weakly, “10/10 form there, Yukimura. Would recommend,” before passing out.

*

Stiles wakes to soft slaps on his face and a concerned Scott hovering over him.  He winces at the overhead lights and pushes away Derek’s insistently nudging head.

“I’m up, I’m up,” he says, struggling into a sitting position.

“We need to get out of here,” Scott says. “Can you walk?”

“Sure,” Stiles says.  He’s pretty sure he can. Whatever whammy the Darach put on him made his limbs loose and his head rattle, and his throat feels tight and hot—his bruises are going to be spectacular—but he’ll crawl out of there if he has to. Stiles has faced down demons and spectral dragons, but that lady was the worst.

They’re in a salt circle. They’re practically in a salt field, considering the amount they’ve dumped all around them, but Kira is busy prying up floorboards with Derek’s help, so Stiles figures their reasoning is two-fold. “We’re burning the house down,” he says, not really a question.

Scott grins at him, strained at the edges. “We’re burning the house down.”

“What are the odds of us not getting arrested for this?” Stiles asks.

Lydia looks up from where she’s painting containment sigils all over the Darach’s headless body with her lipstick. “Faulty wiring,” she says. “I’ll call Jackson tonight.”

Outside the salt, the ghost wolves are milling, howls rising like echoes in a cavern. Scott leverages Stiles to his feet, and Stiles throws an arm over his shoulder to steady himself.

“We need to get out of here,” Lydia says. “Now.” She caps her lipstick, stuffs it into her purse, then hefts the iron poker Scott had brandished earlier.

Kira tosses the now-empty sack of salt into the corner of the room. She flicks out a lighter and looks over at them. “Want a head start?”

Scott lurches forward under Stiles’ weight. Lydia is already halfway up the stairs, slicing through wolves with the poker, and Scott and Stiles follow right behind, Derek at their heels. He pushes steadily on the back of Stiles’ legs, urging him to go faster.

The fire has already spread to the kitchen by the time they all make it outside.

*

Dawn is creeping over the tops of the trees and flames are licking out of the second story windows when Lydia finally calls 911.

The smell of smoke makes Derek’s eyes burn and belly cramp, and he worms his way under the van to hide.

He watches Stiles’ beat up sneakers slowly walk toward him before he collapses on the ground by the back tire.

After a long pause of silence, the crack and roar of the fire and the distant echo of sirens the only sound, Stiles says, “She was wrong, you know.”  Stiles’ long-fingered hand is pressed flat on the stone next to him, and Derek shuffle-crawls close enough to nudge his nose into his pinky.

He whines.

“I know you don’t believe me,” Stiles says, “but she’s wrong.”

“You don’t even know what happened,” Derek says.

“Well, big guy,” Stiles says, lifting his hand to scratch behind Derek’s ears, “I know who the black sheep of the Argent clan are. And I know you always have my back. I’m pretty confident in my assumption here.”  He scratches a little harder, and Derek tilts his head into his hand. “If you ever wanna give me the rundown sometime, though, I’m all ears.”

*

Derek is quiet through the full moon, and Stiles doesn’t know if that’s because whatever the Darach did to him wore off, or if he just doesn’t have anything to say.

They spend the long night in a motel just outside a preserve, and their resident werewolves scuffle like puppies in the woods. Stiles thinks Scott's a little disappointed he can't shift past beta, but he doesn’t seem to let that stop him from joyously running off with Derek anyhow.

Stiles sleeps in fits and starts, ears straining toward the playful yips and howls—he’s worried, for probably the first time, how Derek is actually doing.

Wolf was such a separate being, a tag-along, a warm body to curl up with. Derek watched his family burn, and then hid for years in the ruins. Stiles isn’t exactly a sensitive soul, but he tends to latch onto people he cares about and never let go. Somehow, Derek has managed to weasel his way into his heart.

At little before dawn, Stiles’ door gets bumped open, and Derek pounces through with a goodbye wave from Scott—Stiles watches sleepily. Derek has his tongue out, panting, and his tail and furry butt wag as he prances toward the bed.

Stiles yawns around, “Have a good time?”

The mattress shakes as Derek jumps up and spins in a circle, letting out a humph as he drops down in the bend of Stiles’ knees.

*

Derek stares down at his hands, bigger than he remembers. Hairier. The muscles in his legs feel strange. He wiggles his narrow feet against the rough carpet, fascinated with the knobs of his ankles. The sheer difference in the width of his chest has him purposely heaving breaths, rolling his shoulders. He remembers lean arms and peach fuzz—he palms the side of his face and thinks he probably needs to shave.

Behind him, Stiles stretches awake. He says, “Der—” and cuts off with a yelp, a, “Holy fuck,” and a muffled thump as he rolls off the other side of the bed.

Derek grins into the mirror propped over the dresser across the room. His cheeks puff out and his ears flush.

“Derek?”

Derek turns to look over his shoulder at Stiles, huddled in all the sheets pulled off the bed, hair sticking up every which way, eyes impossibly wide as he clutches the side of the mattress.

Derek?” Stiles says again.

Derek says, “Hey.”

*

Stiles can’t stop looking at Derek.  Scott’s shirt fits him pretty good, but Stiles’ pants are tight across his thighs—Stiles watches Derek’s hands curl and uncurl against the fabric.

“Dude,” Scott says, flicking him a glance through the rearview mirror. “Stop making it weird.”

“I can’t help it!”  The whole situation is already weird; this is not Stiles’ fault.

Because Derek Hale is hot. Derek Hale is surface-of-the-sun hot, but Derek Hale is also quiet, slightly awkward in his skin, and keeps making aborted movements toward Stiles, like he wants to rub up against him. Stiles tends to freeze when that happens, buzzing with nerves and anticipation, causing Derek to soundlessly back off, even though that's the exact opposite of what Stiles actually wants him to do. He can't quite bring himself to say that out loud.

Lydia had been all narrow eyes and questions that morning over breakfast, but now she’s adopted a bored-with-it air, riding shotgun, bare feet curled up on the dash, concentrating on making sure the government knows Derek is still alive.

Kira had been trapped underground for three hundred years before they found her. She’d shaken Derek’s hand with a sunny smile and offered him half of her share of bacon. Currently, she's calling up possible clients in the third row of seats with her regular cheerful zeal.

Stiles’ hands desperately want to pet Derek, rub over an arm, slide fingers through the hair at his nape, but his mind keeps flashing warning signs to back off. Derek is not a dog.

It’s like Stiles’ brain and body aren’t syncing up, and the strain of holding back is exhausting. Finally, in the heat of the late afternoon, Stiles can’t take it anymore. He slumps into his seat, presses his shoulder against Derek’s, carelessly knocking their knees together. The rocking of the van over the stretch of route 66 lulls him into a waking coma, he blinks against flashing trees and long dashes of beige. He doesn’t even fully register it when Derek worms his hand into his and holds on.

*

When they’re working, Derek still prefers to stay a wolf. 

He tells Stiles it’s because his senses are keener, when really he feels like he’s layered in armor—he has sharp teeth and big claws and the only creatures that don’t seem impressed by that are the family of opossums they find in the attic of a house in Nevada.

He tells himself it isn’t because when he’s a wolf, Stiles finally relaxes around him again.

Whatever the Darach did to his canine throat had disappeared with his first shift. At first, Stiles had seemed disappointed, but then it was business as usual—salt and burn the ghosts, exorcise the demons, keep out of the way of anything fae, call an exterminator for the snakes and raccoons.

Bats,” Stiles says, wrapping his arms around his chest and shoving hands up into his armpits. He has a sluggishly bleeding scrape on his forehead and a sour expression. “I hate bats.”

Derek woofs and licks his forearm.

“Come on,” Scott says. He slaps Stiles on the back as he hops down the front stoop. “Let’s get something to eat. And then we can go home.”

Stiles’ face lights up at the word, and something hot squeezes around Derek’s heart.

*

Their last job bought them close enough to Beacon Hills to justify a detour home, one they try to manage at least once every couple months.  The last time was when they were on their way to the Hale job, just outside Beacon County.

Stiles is irrationally disappointed when Derek refuses to shake off his fur to meet his dad.  

He understands it, is the thing. He totally gets why Derek tries to hide behind his legs when his dad pulls him into a hug at the front door.

He gets why he lies under the kitchen table during dinner, and then flops down across his feet in his tiny twin bed.

Stiles says, “I’m not going to be able to feel my feet in the morning,” and Derek just grunts, squirms over onto his back to really dig into Stiles’ ankles, legs playfully kicking at the air.

His dad knocks on the half open door, eyes them both, and says, “I somehow expected this to be less weird.”

Derek rolls up onto his haunches, ears alert, half the covers pulled down around his paws.

Dad points at them and says, “Let’s all try to be human for breakfast, okay?” and then wanders off down the hall, muttering to himself about dang werewolves.

Derek huffs and hides under the blanket, and won’t budge no matter how hard Stiles kicks him in the head.

Somehow, it’s always been easier to sleep on the road than at home—curled up in the van, sharing dumpy motel rooms. He has too much energy, most nights, to have any sort of restful sleep if he’s not bone-deep exhausted from the day. 

He stares at the ceiling of his old bedroom, pinned down by Derek’s weight. He doesn’t think Derek’s sleeping either.

He says, “It’s only for a couple days,” into the darkness, and isn’t all that surprised when Derek doesn’t make a sound in answer.

When he finally drifts off, eyelids falling heavy against the moon shadows lengthening across his ceiling, Stiles dreams of the Hale house.

Of the burned-out husk, the ash-gray of the front veranda, the moldering charred remains of a house that was, miraculously, mostly still standing. The fire had been localized in the back of the house, like a bomb went off where the kitchen used to be. The door leading to the basement hanging off its hinges. Lydia wouldn’t go near it.

He dreams of red eyes, like a crouching demon in the dark.

He dreams of howls, thin and plaintive, round and angry, and when he wakes up, panting, the ghost of hot breaths and sharp fangs against his skin, fingers clenched in his messy sheets, Derek is gone.

*

The call is familiar, like an old ache, and Derek shoves open Stiles’ window and slips outside. He hops to the ground and leaps back into the wolf, digging his back claws into the soft dirt, scraping long grooves into the grass. He scales the fence with a brush of his underbelly against rough slats, and then he pauses, ears up.

The howl is long, mournful, and faint, and Derek knows it’s traveling over miles.

He glances back at the house once, dark and quiet, and then sets off through the woods, hope and wonder lengthening his strides.

*

They wait a week; three days longer than they’d planned to stay. Even Lydia is getting restless, and finally Stiles folds and they pack up the van: extra food from Melissa, two more books from Deaton—given freely, this time, along with a small supply of animal tranqs—and brand new socks and underwear for all. It’s like they’re on tour, except instead of being in a band, they save the world from supernatural creatures and possible rabies.

Scott gives Stiles not-very-encouraging smiles, and by the time Beacon Hills is fading from their rearview mirror, Stiles has a halfway formed plan in his head that involves a very small detour to the Hale house that’ll only put them another day behind.

“No,” Lydia says.

“What’s another day, we’re already late!” Stiles says. “What if something’s wrong?”

“We got rid of everything that was wrong there,” Lydia says, one eyebrow arched pointedly. “I told the DeMattos we’d be there the day after tomorrow.”

Scott stays silent, mouth pressed closed, and Kira is shooting everyone indecisive puppy-eyes.

Finally, Scott sighs and says, “Look. Look, Stiles, I know how you feel, man, but Derek knows how to find us, okay? He’s got a phone and everything now.”

“He left his phone when he ran away from my house naked,” Stiles says. Naked, wolf, same thing. He left his duffle with every single piece of his clothing in it; Stiles very shamelessly rifled through it before tossing it in the back of the van. He sinks down low in his seat and crosses his arms over his chest, biting his lip. “What if something’s wrong,” he says again.

“He’s a grown wolf,” Lydia says primly. Then she leans over and squeezes Stiles’ leg. “He’s going to be fine. And if we haven’t heard from him by the time we finish with the DeMattos, we can come back and check.”

*

The house has a very distinctive smell: a mixture of mold, ash and despair. Derek didn’t realize how used to it he’d become over the years. Now, it makes his nose twitch and burn, the fur on his back prickle with unease.

There’s a woman sitting on the porch steps, dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail. Derek pauses just outside the tree line, crouching in weeds and wildflowers, watching.

Her head jerks up, eye’s narrowing in prickly rage, a flash of gold, and then a split-second later they round with disbelief. “Derek?” she says.

Derek slinks forward, belly low to the ground.

Cora—this is Cora, all sharp cheekbones and thin wrists—slowly stands up, arms falling limply to her sides. The last time Derek saw Cora she’d just turned eleven, baby pudge still soft on her face, and Derek thought she’d died in the fire. Derek doesn’t know what to make of her now.

She says, voice hoarse, “I heard they were going to knock it down.”

Derek wants to say: they tried.

He wants to say: Stiles wouldn’t let them and I’m sorry.

Instead, he huddles at Cora’s feet and pushes his head into her hand.

“What the fuck, Derek,” Cora says, and then drops to her knees, wraps her arms around his neck, and buries her face in his fur. “I thought you were dead, asshole.”

Derek whimpers and licks at her wet cheek.

*

The DeMattos have an amusement park problem. Various eye-witnesses describe a slimy swamp-like monster that rises out of the pond around the Tunnel O’ Love, but Stiles’ money is on a bunch of stoned kids fucking with them.

“This is classic Scooby Doo shenanigans,” Stiles says, waving his flashlight around. “All we need is the Harlem Globetrotters and Don Knotts to show up.”

It’s weird, he feels strangely vulnerable without Derek’s furry presence at his side, despite having done this for years before they found him.

Normally, this kind of job would be awesome—spooky abandoned amusement park, chockfull of expired corn dogs, paint-peeled clown statues that hilariously freak out Scott, and the rickety spires of roller coasters that have an eighty percent chance of actually killing someone. The greater worry here is the risk of getting lockjaw, not getting eaten by a swamp monster.

There’s no such thing as a swamp monster anyway.

Stiles kicks at some gravel and tries not to pout.

He keeps checking his phone, like Derek’ll call him even though his phone is still buried at the bottom of his bag in the back of the van.

Kira says, “Okay, but do you think they’re hiding a weed crop or a meth lab?” as the two of them examine the control panel for the Tunnel O’ Love. She wiggles her fingers and the lights flicker and burn, a loop of plinky carnival music starts up, and half-sunk swan boats clunk into each other at the dock.

“Why would anyone want to reopen this fun house of horrors?” Stiles says. “They should just leave it to the local swamp monsters. Wanna set something on fire?”

“That’s arson, Stiles,” Kira says, but she looks intrigued.

They’re gonna get a reputation.

“Scott would be mad,” Stiles says.

They stare at each other.

“Lydia would be furious,” Kira says.

The loudspeaker across the park suddenly crackles on, echoing demented clown laughter all over the grounds, and in the distance: baying hounds.

Stiles cocks his head. “That’s a weird combination,” he says absently. “That’s weird, right?”

“Stiles,” Kira says, grabbing his arm and shaking him. “Stiles, look.”

While the presence of a hulking, oozing man-shaped mass sloping toward them could be the result of Stiles getting too little sleep in the days since Derek disappeared, it’s kind of tough to argue that when Kira can see it too.

Kira says, “Oh no,” and Stiles takes an unsteady step backward. Both of their hands are raised, Kira with electricity jumping from finger to finger, Stiles pooling wishes in his palms. 

And then the dock makes an ominous crack and Stiles goes flailing into the murky Tunnel O’ Love pond.

“Oh, gross,” he says, coughing and swiping suspiciously slimy water off his face. He can’t see anything beyond the broken planks overhead, but he hears Kira yell, “Fuck you, motherfucker!” which is, like—he winces to himself, Kira’s cursing usually consists of liberal use of poop with some grandmotherly dang-its thrown in for good measure.

He’s just about pulled himself back up onto dry ground when a familiar fur-face barrels into him and accidentally—hopefully—pushes him back in.

*

Stiles smells like gasoline and sludge and old corn dogs, but it doesn’t make Derek back off.

Cora huffs at him, wrinkles her nose and then retreats a good distance away, where Scott is tying up three teenagers who are high as kites and laughing their asses off.

Stiles wraps himself around Derek and says, “Oh my god, you tried to kill me,” but he has his face planted in Derek’s side, so Derek’s pretty sure he knows it was an accident.

One Cora will never let him live down.

He didn’t expect to miss Stiles this much, especially after finding Cora. But there’s a weird tentativeness between him and Cora that didn’t exist ten years ago, and he has no idea how to make it go away—or if it ever will.

They’ve spent their nights curled up together as wolves, but traveling miles apart during the day, keeping track of each other by howls.

Stiles hugs him tight and says, “Hey, Wolf, hey,” and murmurs, “Missed you,” and the bright flush of embarrassment and pleasure makes him warm all over.

When they finally make it over to the others, Lydia has her phone out and Scott gives Kira a high five, and then everyone stares at Cora—she has her head held high, ears pricked, and only Derek and maybe Scott can tell it’s more from apprehension than disdain.

Stiles says, “Who the heck is that beauty,” with an exaggerated wink at Cora and Cora snaps her teeth at him. He holds up his hands and says, “Alright, Lady Wolf, cool your heels and watch your fangs.”

Cora growls, low in her throat.

Stiles says, “I’ve dealt with Grumpy for over two months, I can handle a little Surly,” with the hint of a waver in his voice that makes Derek maneuver himself fully in front of him and stare Cora down.

Cora as a wolf is lean, red and rangy, taller at the haunches than Derek, faster, if push came to shove, but without his muscle bulk and his terrible stubborn willingness to protect Stiles at all cost.

Cora dips her head, though, pads forward to rub her cheek along his.

“Aww, isn’t that adorable?” Stiles says. “Hey, Scotty, how come you can’t go all full wolf?”

Cora silently bares her teeth at him and then transforms into human shape with a fluidity Derek envies, a smirk firmly affixed on her face. “Because he wasn’t born one.”

*

“So that’s your sister,” Stiles says, cupping his hands around a warm mug of coffee.  He won’t admit to being briefly jealous of Derek’s new lady friend, but he thinks maybe Derek knows about that anyhow. “Also, I mean, there’s no tactful way to say this, but… I thought she was dead?”

Derek shrugs, picking apart his muffin with his fingers. “You thought I was dead, too.”

True, true, Stiles nods. Pretty much all of the Hales were presumed dead, given that no one knew they could turn into large hairy wolves. “You, though,” he grimaces, “the famed Demon Wolf of the woods—we know where you were hanging all those years. Where’s she been?”

Derek’s muffin is massacred on his napkin, Stiles is pretty sure none of it ever made it to his mouth.

Derek says, “I don’t know,” shoulders hunched in to make him look smaller.

It should be ridiculous, Derek’s muscles have muscles, but it just makes Stiles want to press his palms into the back of Derek’s neck and let him hide his face against Stiles’ chest. Stiles keeps his hands to himself, though, because Stiles is a gentleman, and Derek only seems to invite pets when he’s got four paws and a tail.

Stiles could sing songs about his spring green eyes and the way they change color in the sun, but he does not.

He could write poetry about the careful fold of his shirt cuffs over his forearms.

He shifts in his seat, lets go of his coffee cup to tap his fingers on the table. He bounces his leg and feels weird about the way the gang is three tables away, giving them some semblance of privacy—that Stiles is staunchly pretending he doesn’t know why they need, ignoring Kira’s exaggerated winks—and he can only thank mother moon that Cora is back at the motel getting a shower, because he’s pretty sure she’d be able to feel his emotions spilling all over the place.

Someone needs to put him out of his misery here.

Derek’s chest expands on a big breath. He says, “She wants me to go back with her.”

Stiles freezes. “You don’t even know where she’s been all these years, but you’re going to leave for parts unknown with her?” He shoves a hand through his hair. “What, did you come find us just to say goodbye? Jesus Christ, Derek.”

Derek’s eyebrows slant down, mouth frowning. “She’s my sister.”

“Yeah? A sister who abandoned you—”

“She was eleven,” Derek says, voice rising.

“And it’s been over a decade, Derek, she didn’t stay eleven, did she?” Stiles pushes back his chair, it makes a screeching noise that echoes around the small cafe—Scott glances over, alarmed, but Stiles holds a hand out to stop him from coming over. He takes a deep breath.  “Look,” he says finally, “I get it, okay? We’re just—” he flops a hand between them, trying hard not to let on that his heart is breaking, what the fuck, “—you do what you gotta do.  I guess maybe I’ll see you around.  Sometime.”

Scott is giving him big, worried eyes when he moves past their table, but Stiles just shakes his head, he doesn’t want anyone following him right now.

It’s ridiculous and it’s total crap, and he’s a big boy. He can handle this.

Fuck.

*

Cora finds Derek sitting on top of a picnic table around the side of the motel. It’s almost sunset.  He can hear the van idling in the parking lot as the gang packs up their things.

They have a job on the east coast. They need to start moving soon.

Cora hops up on the worn wood next to him and bumps their shoulders. She prefers to be human, she’s told him, and she seems a lot more comfortable around him than when she’s a wolf. When her instincts take over. He’s not sure what that says about them—he doesn’t think it’s anything good.

“You ready to go?” she says.

Derek shoots her a glance, but she’s not looking at him. She has her hands on her knees and her face to the sky.

The sun is low and golden. There are darkening clouds to the east, a storm rolling in. The wind picks up and ruffles the ends of his too-long hair.

Cora’s hair is a mess to her shoulders, framing a solemn mouth and rueful eyes. She plucks at his shirt, a playful tug on his sleeve, and suddenly: she’s ten and needling him for the last of his pancakes. Nine and using her doe eyes to borrow his precious comics. Seven and hiding with him in the attic after using up all of Laura’s lipstick.

He’s ready, he thinks, and opens his mouth and says, “No.”

*

It doesn’t take very long to pack up, but Stiles drags his feet. He dumps his bag out on the bed and methodically separates his clothes into clean, relatively clean, and dirty piles. He wipes down his deodorant, trashes his last toothbrush, throws out the boxers he was wearing when he fell into the amusement park pond.

Derek’s duffle is zipped up and sitting on the floor by the door, mocking him.

Scott peeks around the doorjamb and says, “We need to get at least six hours of driving in today, dude,” with an apologetic frown.

Stiles sighs. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” he says, and then sweeps up all his piles together and stuffs them haphazardly in his bag.

He leaves the door open, for Derek, and then shoves his bag in the back of the van, under the seats.

Kira’s already in shotgun and Lydia’s got the wheel. She’s far too classy to make impatient noises, but she glares at him and his sloth-like speed as he hefts himself through the side door.

It’s just… he’d been hoping to say goodbye to Derek again. He hates that he made it weird.

And then Scott says, “Whoa, hey,” and a massive black wolf pushes past him to scramble in the van—he sits on his haunches directly behind Lydia and gives Stiles and Scott an innocent well, what are you waiting for look, and it’s—

Stiles doesn’t bother trying to stop the wide grin he can feel blooming across his face.

“There better be room for me,” Cora says from behind them.

Stiles whips around to see her lugging Derek’s bag with a resigned expression. She says, “I’ll need to stop for clothes,” knocking Scott to the side.

“No, really, what’s going on?” Stiles says before he can stop himself.

Derek huffs.

Cora wrinkles her nose and says, “Derek thinks McCall here is his alpha.”

“Can alphas have alphas?” Stiles says. “Is that a thing? Wait, you know what, I don’t actually care.” He thumps his butt down next to Derek and feels his warmth all along his side.

Scott pulls the door shut behind himself before joining Cora in the way-back.

Lydia says, “Seatbelts, please,” like none of this is odd, and then they’re off.

*

They switch up seats at the next rest stop, and Derek ends up next to Cora in the third row.

It’s full dark, and he stares at the moon outside the window, feels Cora sigh and shift and pointedly not say anything.

Derek waits her out.

Finally, she says, soft, “Satomi took me in.”

Derek tenses, watches Cora’s reflection in the window.

“I was in the attic,” she went on. “Dad tossed me out the dormer before going down to help everyone else. He took Teddy, because he wouldn’t have survived the fall.”

Derek’s chest is tight, and his eyes burn.

She says, “You were napping in your room,” a hitch in her breath. “I remember. I remember you snapped at us to leave you alone, and then I never saw you again.”

Derek blindly gropes for her hand and squeezes.

“I went to Dad’s family, in South America. The pack Cousin James married into.” Derek can feel her shrug, stiff and forced. “And then you know the rest.”

They’re quiet again for a while.  Stiles is in front of them, head tipped back and snoring.

After a few long moments he slips his sweaty hand out of hers and says, “Thanks.”

She arches an eyebrow at him.

“For coming with me,” he clarifies. He gives an aborted wave toward Stiles and she snorts.

She snorts and then covers her mouth with the back of her hand, failing to hide a smile, and says, “Good luck with that. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Derek has no idea what he’s doing, but he thinks that’s okay.

*

“You don’t really think Scott’s your alpha, do you?” Stiles says, curled up on a bed in the cheapest motel they could find outside of Tucson, watching through the mottled window as the sun creeps up over the horizon.

“You’re fishing,” Derek says, voice sleep-rough.

Stiles rolls over to look at him. At some point in the middle of the night, Derek had slipped from wolf to man.  He’s got his head pillowed on a massive bicep, the sheet tucked just over his hip, and Stiles tries to keep his eyes firmly on Derek’s face.  It’s not a hardship. Derek has pillow creases on his cheek, enough dark scruff to be officially dubbed a beard, and a soft smile on his lips.

“Answer the question, Wolf,” Stiles says, poking the divot in Derek’s chin with a finger.

 “Yes, Stiles, I really think Scott is my alpha,” he says, but he curls his hand around Stiles’ and slowly drags it down his throat—Stiles fans his fingers out and swallows dry.

“Okay,” Stiles says, nodding slowly. “Okay, but you’re an alpha too, so how does that—”

Derek’s other hand fists in the front of his t-shirt and Stiles flails a little with a squawk of surprise, and then Derek’s mouth is opening up under his and—okay.  Okay.

Stiles shakes his hands out of Derek’s grip and threads his fingers into Derek’s hair, pressing up against him with a groan. This is all good, right?  This is like—Stiles has no idea what’s happening, but everything is a-okay with him. There’s the hot slide of Derek’s naked muscles underneath him, basically the only thing holding Stiles back right now is the tangle of sheets around his legs.

And then there’s a pounding on their door and Cora shouting through the thin wood: “Hurry up, Losers!”

Stiles backs off of Derek with wide eyes, leverages up with his palms flat on Derek’s chest.  “That was…” He trails off, not sure what to say.

Derek blinks blearily up at him. His soft grin is even softer.  Derek is like a puzzle within a puzzle—his tragic past, his dark years, the way he looks at Stiles, sometimes, like Stiles is some kind of hero, like Stiles could be his whole world.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a twenty-something dude who fights supernatural baddies for pennies and still gets an allowance from his dad.

Stiles stares at him, and the longer Stiles stays quiet, the more concern creeps into Derek’s eyes.

Stiles straightens up and away, kicking his legs out of the sheets to crisscross in front of him.

Derek shifts on the mattress, a dull flush on his ears, says, “Stiles, you don’t—” just as Stiles says, “I hope you realize this makes us boyfriends.”

He’s not going to have rules, like Derek has to be human with him eighty percent of the day—impossible to expect—or Derek can’t rip out the throats of his enemies to protect him—because that’s badass, even if Stiles can take care of himself.

But they’ve kissed, Derek kissed him, boyfriends is non-negotiable.

One of Derek’s hands curls over his bare knee. “Okay,” he says.

“Right, uh,” Stiles clears his throat, jerks his gaze away from the dip of the sheet at Derek’s groin, the smooth skin of his throat, the curve of his jaw under his ear, “we better get a move on. Before Cora turns the hose on us.”

Derek moves up onto an elbow and cocks his head—Stiles manfully resists inserting a dog joke—and his blush becomes more pronounced, grin sheepish. “Scott’s, uh, lecturing her on patience and privacy. They’re going to breakfast without us.”

Stiles says, “Oh, good,” and tackles Derek back onto the bed.

Derek laughs into his mouth. “Slow down,” he says. “We’ve got a while.”