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Breathe Again

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Stiles scratched his nose with the end of his pen, eyes fixed on the old book resting on his lap. Hunching his shoulders slightly, he shifted in his seat to try and find a more comfortable position, the right side of his butt having numbed after having sat on it for the past three hours.

Summer had once more arrived in Beacon Hills, and Stiles was taking advantage of the downtime to get in some much-needed research. Well, maybe not needed, but Stiles was a firm believer in preventive research when it came to all things that liked to go bump in the night.

A low snort came from the couch beside him and he couldn’t help the small, fond smile curve his lips as he glanced over to his slumbering companion.

Derek was stretched out on the couch adjacent to the recliner Stiles occupied. The alpha had spent the better part of the morning running circles around his pack, working hard on their agility via a foam pool noodle – of all ridiculous things – whacking any pup who was too slow to dodge.

After listening to the loud ‘thwack’ of the pool noodle connecting with skin for hours, followed by the even louder complaints and yells of disgruntled pups, Derek had finally given up and left the wolves free to do whatever they wanted outside. Stiles couldn’t say he wasn’t relieved to finally have some peace and quiet.

The rest of the pack had been quick to disperse, with Derek making a beeline for the couch near Stiles and literally growling when Scott and Isaac had inched towards the gaming consoles. Stiles had laughed when the duo did an about-face and instead declared that some roughhousing in the preserve with Jackson was exactly what they felt like doing.

Breathing in deeply, Stiles closed his eyes and stretched his arms over his head, feeling the familiar ache in the back of his neck from having been leaning over for too many hours. Yawning widely, he opened his eyes to find slitted green ones staring back at him.

“Have a good nap?” He asked.

Derek made a positive sounding grunt, absently rubbing his stubbled cheek against the cushion beneath his head. The familiar swell of amusement he felt whenever one of the pack displayed particularly wolfy behaviour in front of him warmed his chest.

“Hungry?” He asked, pushing himself to his feet and leaving the book on the small coffee table as he made his way through the open planned kitchen/dinning/living area. Derek remained silent behind him, which Stiles took to mean it had been a stupid question, werewolves were always hungry.

“We can use the loaves I picked up from the bakery this morning and make some sandwiches for lunch. Do we still have those packets of cold cuts in the fridge?” Stiles asked as he slid the lid of the large bread bin back to reveal the loaves he’d stashed there when he’d arrived at the den earlier.

“They’re still there.” Derek’s voice came from just behind him, and Stiles had to supress the jerky jump his body instinctively made in surprise. It didn’t matter how many years he’d been keeping company with sneaky, ninja wolves, they were always able to creep up behind him.

“Sandwiches it is, then.” He nodded to himself, moving around Derek to get some salad ingredients from the crisper while the wolf pulled out the packets of cold meat.

The two worked comfortably for the next few minutes, making up a large platter of sandwiches for the no doubt hungry brood who were conveniently bound to turn up just in time for all the work to have already been done. Stiles happily rambled off some of the new information he had been reading about, Derek offering mostly noises of interest, interspaced with the occasional opinion or comment when he recognised the topic.

It was nice.

It was comfortable.

It was something Stiles found himself doing more and more often with the alpha.

Over the past year, the packs’ first year at college, they had all settled somewhat, despite the distance attending different universities had enforced upon them. Stiles knew Derek had been particularly worried about the spreading of his pack over such a large space, the alpha having been testy in the last few weeks of the summer before. Stiles had been fascinated to watch as the man warred with his desire for his pack to be well educated and to follow their own ambitions, and his instinctive desire to have them close by.

Thankfully, however, with a lot of luck, long car trips and – strangely – express mailing of clothing, they’d managed to make everything work. The pack had even somehow fallen into a closer bond than when they’d been living in the same town. Stiles had started the year with only the occasional phone call or message from one of his pack mates, mostly comprised of complaints about the course work loads and new classmates. By the time there was only a few weeks until the end of the school year, he was getting multiple messages every day and usually a phone call or two, Skype sessions were also a thing that happened.

The conversations had progressed from the mere complaints to genuine worries to sharing of accomplishments. Stiles also found himself falling into a mediator role, sorting out inter-pack disputes and proposing ideas to their alpha if he thought they had merit but had been shot down without discussion.

Stiles couldn’t exactly claim to not enjoy how essential to the pack he felt when he was consulted on even the most ridiculous of disagreements, like if the peanut butter belonged in the fridge or cupboard.

It wasn’t, however, just the pups who had been relying more heavily on him, but also Derek had taken to insisting upon a Skype call once a week, the numerous text messages exchanged between each call apparently not enough. The calls had been consistent from the first week he had arrived at Berkley. Initially, they’d been stilted conversations lasting all of five minutes, but over time they’d grown more comfortable talking to each other and now it wasn’t uncommon for Stiles to fall asleep before his laptop after having talked to Derek all night. Mostly, they discussed pack business, updating each other on what information they’d been privy to by the pups gossiping ways and comparing notes when any of them seemed to be having difficulties. The mom and dad situation between them hadn’t been lost on Stiles.

But sometimes, when it’d been a slow week on the drama front, they just talked, about anything and everything. Stiles couldn’t lie when he said he loved those moments. Talking with Derek about mundane things, with no threat of a supernatural villain or inter-pack drama, wasn’t something they’d really done before. But the relative peace of Beacon Hills while the pack was away had left little room for distractions and Stiles was able to learn more about the broody alpha on a personal level.

As expected, just as they were finishing up with the sandwiches, the rest of the pack began making their way inside the den.

They had sat down at the large wooden kitchen table used for pack dinners, impatiently waiting for the few stragglers to show up before they began eating, when Derek suddenly tensed in his seat at the head of the table.

“What’s wrong?” The words were out of Stiles’ mouth before the rest of his mind caught up to what he was seeing. Spending the last few years practically living in the pocket of a pack of wolves, a banshee, and a hunter had sharpened Stiles’ own senses, attuning his body to the rest of the pack.

Derek didn’t verbally answer, but he did read over and comfortingly squeeze Stiles’ hand from his seat beside him. Looking at the alpha, Stiles fell silent as the man stood.

As expected, not five seconds later, the front door was pushed open as Scott and Isaac spilled into the room, frowns marring their faces.

“What is it?” Derek asked, the room stilling completely.

“We were on the North side of the territory and we smelt something… weird.” Scott dutifully replied.

Stiles was never so thankful that Scott had gotten over the bad blood between Derek and him as when it came to the sharing of information. When one dealt with supernatural baddies numerous times each year, the pooling of resources and knowledge made keeping people alive easier.

“Weird how?” Stiles asked.

“It kind of smelt like, well, you.” Isaac said, one shoulder rising in a half shrug.

“You when you’re doing magic, he means.” Scott butted in, effectively stopping the strange looks that the rest of the pack had been shooting Stiles.

“So, a strong magical residual, then?” Stiles cocked his head to the side curiously.

“Was it heading into the territory, or just passing by?” Derek asked.

“Heading in, definitely.” Derek growled lowly. “But, when we tried to track it, it just disappeared on the main road into town.”

“Whoever it is must’ve caught a ride. But, they could have been heading in either direction.” Stiles muttered, mind ticking away as the many possibilities began sorting from most likely, to least likely, in his head.

“Did you smell anything on the way back here?” Derek asked.

“No. Once it disappeared at the road, we couldn’t pick it up again.” Isaac replied.

Stiles was brought out from his turbulent thoughts by the slightest movement from Derek and, without thinking, he reached out and snagged the hem of the alpha’s henley to prevent him from moving away.

“There doesn’t seem to be any immediate threat. So, let’s just have our lunch, and then you can take some of the pups with you to investigate.” Stiles coaxed, looking up into green eyes unwaveringly.

Derek was still for a moment before he let out a small huff and sat back down, his body remaining tense.

“Come on, let’s eat.” Stiles said, the cheer in his voice only slight forced.

He just hoped that whatever the new magical thing that had entered Beacon Hills was, it didn’t have any plans on murder or mayhem of the pack.

*

“Come on, aim properly you stupid thing!” Stiles yelled, teeth gritted together as he tilted the controller in his hand as though that was going to give him the extra edge he needed.

“You’re going down, man!” Scott grinned, perched on the couch beside him, knees tucked up to his chest and arms outstretched.

Erica laughed loudly as Stiles groaned, the screen before him flashing ‘Game Over’ for his character.

“My turn!” She grabbed the controller from Stiles, settling down on his other side. Stiles, wise to the danger of his current position, hopped up from the couch claiming he wanted more snacks, when really it was self-preservation as he knew elbows and knees were about to start flying between the two wolves.

It had been almost a week since Scott and Isaac had first scented the magical residual in the Hale territory. Since then, Derek had ordered for regular patrolling of the boarders of the preserve, seeming to become more annoyed each time the wolves reported back to him after having found and lost the scent. There was a definite concentration of the scent throughout the preserve which, Stiles privately thought, was getting under Derek’s skin more than if the scent had been through the main streets of Beacon Hills. Having a potential threat so close to the packs’ den was putting Derek in a constant state of stress.

The worst part, however, was that they still had no idea what was causing the magical residual. The scent seemed to just appear, trail through the preserve for a bit, then disappear just as mysteriously. Stiles had the uneasy feeling that whatever was causing the scent knew that there was a wolf pack in the area and was taunting them.

He snagged a packet of chips from the kitchen pantry before returning to where Scott and Erica were battling it out, voices raised as they threw out insults, trying to distract the other so that they could gain the upper hand.

He had just sat down on one of the two loveseats, safely away from the duo and their elbows, when the front door opened and Derek walked into the den, the frown on his face clearly stating that he’d had no luck on his patrol.

Stiles patted the seat beside him sympathetically and Derek slinked over, sitting down with a loud sigh, legs splayed widely so that a thigh was pressed up snug against Stiles’ own. Stiles offered him his open packet of chips, but Derek merely scrunched up his nose in distaste before crossing his arms over his chest and slumping slightly in Stiles’ direction.

“We’ll work it out.” Stiles said encouragingly, shoving another handful of chips into his mouth and chewing.

Derek grunted, eyes sliding shut moodily.

Stiles lost time watching Erica and Scott try numerous attempts to best the other, the warm press of the alpha heating his side.

Eventually, the two betas tired of their game, Erica crowing victory much to Scott’s annoyance. Stiles suddenly found himself the object of two amused pairs of eyes, the fond smile on his face morphing into exasperation.

“Why don’t you two make yourselves useful and go get us something for dinner?” He asked softly, mindful of the slumped form beside him, Derek’s hair tickling his neck each time he moved.

Erica was trying to stifle giggles and Scott gave him a jaunty salute as the dup stood and left the house. Stiles looked around, realising he was alone with Derek, an unusual occurrence since they’d come back for the summer.

Turning his head slightly towards where Derek rested against him, Stiles allowed himself a moment to just breath in the scent of the man. The smells of the forest twinned around Derek’s uniquely masculine scent, just a touch of his shampoo blended in.

Derek let out a quiet snuffling noise, cheek rubbing against Stiles’ shoulder before he let out a small huff and stilled once more.

“You really had no luck finding anything?” He asked quietly, staring absentmindedly out the window across the room, dusk settling over the trees.

“It’s just like it is every time.” Derek’s voice was deeper than usual, rough with sleep even though it had only been a brief nap. “Nothing, then I can scent it, but once I’ve tracked it for a bit, it just ends.” Frustration coloured his voice and Stiles reached for his hand without another thought.

Giving the larger hand a small, reassuring squeeze, he leaned away briefly to grab the TV remote before settling back, Derek grumbling slightly at having been moved.

“I sent Erica and Scott to pick up something for dinner. So, we’re probably going to have pizza.” Stiles mentioned, feeling content as Derek pushed up against his side once more, head tucking into his neck so that warm breath fanned out on each exhale against Stiles’ skin. Resting his free hand on Derek’s thigh, Stiles let himself relax as he mindlessly watched some drama on TV.

They managed to enjoy half an hour of peace before the rest of the pack began turning up, word that pizza was on the menu for dinner having travelled fast. Stiles briefly entertained the thought of getting up when they first began arriving, but Derek was still leaning against him dozing, and Stiles knew how stressed the wolf had been for the last week. He was just happy to see him getting some sleep. Even the entertained looks various pack members were sending him weren’t enough to get Stiles moving.

Finally, however, Erica and Scott returned with a frankly ridiculously large stack of pizza boxes, which were quickly spread out on the kitchen table and counters.

“Derek?” He squeezed the warm thigh under his hand, hoping to coax his companion into wakefulness so that they both could eat. Derek let out a quiet sound, but otherwise didn’t move.

Stiles was about to try again, when Allison suddenly appeared before them, a box rescued from the descending wolves in her hand.

“Here you guys go.” She grinned, eyes flickering between them, but her smile was less amused and more affectionate as she pulled the small coffee table over to the loveseat and set the box down. Pulling out a slice of meat lovers – heavy on the meat – she handed it to Stiles before returning to the rest of the boxes for her own dinner.

“Allison, you’re so my favourite.” Stiles grinned, taking a large bite of his slice and chewing happily as the flavours exploded on his tongue.

He was about to take another bite when a low whine reached his ear. Looking down, his eyes met pitiful looking green ones and he tried, he tried so hard to steel himself against the begging in them, not that anyone would every call it begging to Derek’s face.

“You’re meant to be the big, bad, strong alpha of this pack.” He grumbled, but obligingly held the slice up to Derek’s mouth, the other taking a large bite of his own. A happy growling sound came from him for a moment before he pushed himself upright on the couch, stretching slightly.

“I am the alpha.” He said almost absentmindedly as he proceeded to steal the rest of the slice Stiles held.

“Hey, there’s a box right there, lazywolf.” He snarked, digging an elbow into Derek’s side, not that he seemed all that bothered by it.

“So, get another piece.” He shrugged, licking his fingers after demolishing the rest of the slice.

Stiles glared at him, but they both knew it was all for show when Stiles could feel the warmth in his chest and he knew Derek would be able to smell the happiness in his scent.

“Hey, if you guys’ don’t stop flirting, there’ll be no pizza left for either of you.” Jackson called out, his voice loud over the growls and yips of the others fighting for their favourite toppings.

“Yeah, shut up.” Stiles called back, only slightly embarrassed by his words.

Whatever it was that was going on between Derek and himself, Stiles was content to let things happen naturally. As Derek’s thigh was still pressed snuggly up against his own as he reached for another slice, Stiles grinned.

*

Stiles was comparing the sodium content in two different brands of canned tomato soup at the grocery store, when he felt his phone buzz with an incoming phone call in his pocket. Putting the higher level one back on the shelf, he chucked the chosen can into his basket before fishing out his phone, idly noting that he was the only one down the canned food aisle.

“You do know who you called, right?” He asked, looking at his phone where the video call screen showed Jackson already rolling his eyes at him.

“Shut up.” Jackson said, reflexively.

“You’re the one who rang me, dude.”

“Only because Derek can’t use technology.” Jackson grumbled, looking over the screen at, presumably, Derek.

Stiles laughed, the beta wasn’t exactly wrong.

“Give me that.” Derek’s voice came off screen and the camera unfocused for a moment before clearing on Derek’s face, the alpha appearing to stare down rather than at Stiles himself due to the cameras location. Derek’s continued inability to properly use technology was the subject of many jokes and teasing about old men and newfangled technology within the pack.

“What’s up?” Stiles asked, eyes trailing back to the shelves of food as he thought about what he could make for dinner that night that his father wouldn’t complain about too much.

“We found some symbols carved into trees near the den.” Derek’s voice was tight, and Stiles immediately looked back at his phone screen.

“Symbols as in kids are shits who graffiti even on trees, or symbols as in this is magical in nature and we have no idea what kind of spell someone’s trying to cast?” He asked, voice lowering in case there was anyone in the next aisle over.

“They look like runes of some kind.” Derek said, looking away from the camera and glaring again.

“Hmm, show me?” He leaned against the aisle, ignoring the colourful sign announcing half price stewed peas – even he wasn’t that mean as to try and make his dad eat that.

The look on Derek’s face clearly asked why he was the one stuck doing this, but he obligingly turned the phone to face the tree.

“No, up, I can’t see it all – no, stop! Too far, down a bit, wait. Okay, just, take half a step back, yeah, okay that’s better.” Stiles stared at his phone screen, a frown on his face as he tried to make out the symbol. It looked as if someone had gone at the smooth bark of the tree with a knife and hacked away until it vaguely resembled a shape. It wasn’t triggering any kind of memory from when he’d looked into runes before, so he’d have to dig deeper.

“Are they all like this, or different?”

The screen blurred slightly again as Derek turned the camera back to face him, still looking at the wrong spot.

“Some are different, others’ repeat in a kind of pattern. All up, we’ve found about twelve so far. They seem to be circling the den.” A slight growl accompanied his words.

“Okay, look… take some pictures and send them to me, I’ll start looking into it tonight. If I can’t figure out what they mean I’ll head out to the preserve tomorrow and have a look around myself. There might be something about their placement or the direction that’s important.”

Derek was silent for a moment before he let out a breath.

“Take Boyd with you when you go tomorrow, I don’t want anyone in the preserve by themselves right now.”

“Yes alpha, my alpha.” Stiles teased, hoping to lighten the dark look on Derek’s face.

Derek gave him a sharp grin, teeth longer than a regular human’s, before he ended the call.

Stiles couldn’t help but feel amused, putting his phone back into his pocket and straightening to continue his shopping. He took a few steps to the end of the aisle, intending to go right down the next one, when the feeling of being watched caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up.

Pausing as casually as he could before the stand of boxed chocolates, he tried to stealthily look around himself for anything out of the ordinary. The cashier was staring into space and old Mrs Peterson from two streets away – who had babysat Stiles exactly once as a child – was currently reading through the latest gossip magazine without buying it.

Glancing to the other side of the store, Stiles froze at the three pairs of eyes staring back at him. Three women stood near the entrance to the grocery store, not even trying to act like they were shopping for food. Two blonde women and a brunette, they just stood there, staring at him with matching hungry looks on their faces.

The brunette suddenly smiled at him, and Stiles felt a chill run up his spine.

Wasting no more time, he ducked into the next aisle and pulled his phone back out of his pocket. Pressing the familiar contact, he lifted it to his ear this time as he faced a wall of Tupperware containers, his eyes flickering to the end of the aisle.

As soon as he heard it connect, Stiles was speaking, words falling from his mouth.

“Dad, hey, listen. I was thinking all that food we’ve got at home, we should get some containers for it.”

The silence on the other end of the line was almost like a physical force.

“Containers…” Derek’s voice slowly came through the small phone’s speakers.

“Yep, all that food. I’m thinking three containers should do it.” Stile again glanced at the mouth of the aisle.

He wasn’t entirely sure those chicks wouldn’t react if they heard him calling his alpha, so code it was.

Derek was silent for another beat before a low growl could be heard.

“Only you.” He muttered. “There’s three of them? Are you still at the grocers?”

“Yep. I thought that was the right number.” Stiles continued to babble.

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Derek said before the dial tone filled Stiles’s ear.

“Bye.” He said to no one, letting his arm fall to his side, the plastic clutched tightly in his hand as he stared determinedly at the containers before him.

True to his word, less than ten minutes later Derek appeared at the end of the aisle Stiles was still standing in, a scowl on his face as he headed over to him.

“It was them.” He said without prelude, a big hand coming up to rest between Stiles’ shoulder blades and dragging down to his lower back. Stiles saw him take in a deep breath, no doubt checking that he wasn’t hurt, before his shoulders relaxed slightly.

“Yeah, they were giving off seriously creepy vibes.” Stiles nodded, feeling himself relax now that he wasn’t alone.

“Whatever they are, they’re gone now. I could smell them in the parking lot before the scent just disappeared, as usual.”

“It was three women, two blondes and a brunette. They looked about our age, but there was something… unsettling about them.” Another shiver ran down his spine, just remembering the way they had looked at him. He’d never felt quite so objectified, like he was somebodies’ dinner, and not in the sexy way.

“Do you have anything else to get?” Derek asked, glancing down at his half full basket.

“Nothing that can’t wait. Let’s get out of here.” Derek didn’t say anything else as they went and paid for what Stiles had already picked up. The cashiers’ flirty smile didn’t even seem to register on the alpha’s radar, his eyes still tracking around the store just in case.

It wasn’t until they reached the jeep in the carpark that Derek finally removed his hand from Stiles’ back, the loss of the comforting warmth almost making Stiles reach back for him.

Almost.

*

The fallen leaves and twigs crunched beneath his runners as Stiles walked through the preserve, his phone in hand as he used it to take his own pictures of, and record notes on, the runes as Boyd showed him to each of the trees.

“I dunno, man. This doesn’t seem to make any sense.” Stiles grumbled, half to himself and half to his mostly silent companion.

They were nearing the end of the targeted trees and so far, Stiles had seen a variety of runes he recognised from European history. The problem was, they weren’t all from one area. He’d seen some with Germanic origins, while others had Celtic history. Usually when someone was attempting to invoke powers using runes, they stuck to one belief system. Stiles was pretty sure what it made what they were attempting to accomplish more powerful and stable.

Then there was the doubling up of meanings. Some of the runes from different origins had the same meaning, or at least similar meanings, suggesting that whoever was doing this either didn’t do their research, or they were trying to enhance certain aspects of the ritual by repeating the same thing in different ways.

“This one’s another power booster, that’s three now.” Stiles sighed as he took a photo before running a hand through his hair in frustration.

A sudden hand clasped around his upper arm, causing Stiles to look back at the taller man in surprise.

Boyd was looking into the trees, the slight flaring of his nostrils indicating that he was scenting the air around them.

Stiles tensed in response, the memory of the three women flashing through his mind as he, too, peered into the trees.

“What is it?” He asked quietly after a beat of silence.

“I smell blood.” Boyd replied, before steering Stiles further into the trees, eyes alert for any sign that they weren’t alone.

“Oh, great. If we find a dead body, please let it not be someone we know.” Stiles groaned. They must have been alone if Boyd was willing to investigate without waiting for backup from the rest of the pack.

Boyd flashed his startlingly white teeth in amusement, but it was otherwise silent behind the two are they moved forward. Boyd’s hand had fallen from Stiles’ arm, but he still hovered closer than usual.

Stiles didn’t need a super sniffer to know when they’d reached the place. It was a smallish clearly, only a few feet wide, but there was evidence of a small raised platform made from rocks beneath one of the trees. Burned down candles had made a mess of wax on the preserve ground, and in pride of place atop the alter was what looked like a slaughter rabbit.

“Poor fluffy.” Stiles said, inching closer to the gruesome sight.

Boyd snorted softly, shadowing his steps.

“Man, if this smells’ bad to me, it must be hellish on your nose.” He glanced behind him, a faint nod his only response.

Raising his phone once again, Stiles snapped a series of photos before back away. While this wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever seen – it didn’t even make the top ten – it was still gross and the smell or iron and sage in the air was nauseating.

“Come on, let’s get back so I can contact Lydia and see if she recognises any of these.” Stiles turned to Boyd, holding up his phone for emphasis.

“What do you think it’s about?” Boyd asked quietly as they began making their way back to the den.

“I’m pretty sure it’s nothing good for us.” He answered with a frown, glancing back at where the small alter was quickly swallowed up by the trees.

*

Stiles placed the lid back on the huge pot he had been checking with a sense of satisfaction. Using an oven mitt, he carefully peaked into the other oversized pot on the stove top that was filled with rice to make sure it was cooking properly. Seeing that dinner was progressing as planned, he turned to face the rest of the room, leaning back against the kitchen cabinets as his eyes trailed over the space before him.

The large kitchen was at one side of the den, a wide breakfast bar separating it from the rest of the room, four stools lining the opposite side. The actual kitchen table that they used for pack meals was next, its robust hardwood surface already nicked and lightly scratched from constant use. The stairs leading to the second floor that housed the various bedrooms and bathrooms were tucked behind the table, opposite the front door. The back door stood beside the stairs, almost directly across from the front, so one could stand at either door and see out of other. Finally, the living space completed the room, one big couch faced the flat-screen television – that Derek still denied he bought just to shut up the pack who had whined about HD - with two loveseats on either side, a recliner completing the setup.

Currently, Lydia was perched on one of the stools, her laptop open before her as she helped him with researching the runes. They had yet to find any meaning behind the strange combination, much to everyone’s frustration. Derek sat a stool over from her, an old tomb of a book that Stiles had managed to pilfer from Deaton after a less than helpful question session, open before him.

Outside, Stiles could hear the occasional sound of Erica’s laughter through the open back door, her and Boyd claimed they were watering the vegetable and herb garden Stiles had started when the house had finally reached completion last year. Well, Derek had started the vegetable garden and Stiles, upon learning that their alpha had an impressive green thumb, had turned up one day with a box full of seeds and a shovel. Derek had done most of the work in an effort to preserve his vegetables from Stiles’s well intentioned, but disastrous, gardening skills. Stiles was pretty sure Erica and Boyd, however, were more interested in squirting water at one another and making out than actually watering any plants.

“This one here is from Sweden, which, frankly, makes more sense than all the Germanic and Celtic runes we’ve been looking at so far.” Lydia spoke up, jotting something down on the small notebook she kept beside her laptop.

“Have you had any luck with finding out why they’re using runes from different countries?” Stiles asked, moving forward to lean his arms on the kitchen island, almost directly across from Derek.

“No.” She admitted, lips pursed.

“What about the book?” Stiles turned his attention to Derek.

“It’s mostly on the origin of runes and what some of the more popular ones mean.” Derek huffed, not looking up from the page he was reading.

Stiles let out his own small sigh. Even the internet had been failing him lately, it seemed that the only way to research runes was if you already knew what kinds you were after and what purpose you wanted them for.

“We’ll figure it out.” Derek said quietly, and Stiles looked up to meet his green eyes.

“I know, we always do.” He smiled tightly, the knowledge that sometimes they were too late to use the information to prevent someone getting hurt was a heavy weight between them.

Derek opened his mouth as if to say more, leaning in closer to Stiles, when he suddenly froze, whole body going ridged. Sitting up straight, Stiles watched as Derek’s nose flared. Unease slid down his spine as Derek’s chest expanded with a deep breath.

The alpha was up and heading for the door before Stiles could do more than stand up straight himself.

“Derek?” Stiles called out.

Derek didn’t respond, instead opening the front door and disappearing out it.

“Erica! Boyd!” Stiles yelled, following Derek outside and finding him already gone.

The duo appeared after a moment, clothes damp and Erica’s hair a mess.

“What’s up?” Erica asked, her humour fading as she took in the increasingly tense atmosphere that had settled over the den.

Stiles glanced back at them and beckoned them onto the porch, Lydia stepping up beside him as well. Turning his eyes to the tree line, he frowned. Whatever had caught Derek’s attention had been enough to get him running from the den. It couldn’t be anything good.

“Derek just took off, can either of you hear or smell anything?”

The sound of the two wolves breathing in deeply was followed by a beat of silence.

“There’s not much to smell, other than the tension coming off of you two.” Erica said and Stiles cursed alpha werewolves and their inability to tell him what the hell was going on.

Suddenly, both beta’s heads cocked to the side.

“Isaac’s hurt.” Boyd said, clearly listening to something Stiles couldn’t hope to hear with his dulled human senses.

“Jackson says he stepped on a bear trap and now it’s stuck on his foot.” Erica continued, a frown turning her lips down.

Anger bubbled up in Stiles’s chest with worry only a step behind it.

“Fucking poachers.” He growled, making a mental note to tell his father about this. Beacon Hills preserve had a strict one month hunting period each year, otherwise it was against the law to hunt in the area. It wouldn’t be the first time some wannabe big game hunter went to town on the poor animals in the preserve just because they had a slew of traps and guns.

“If they’re just hunters, why hasn’t someone opened the trap back up?” Lydia asked.

The silence was thick between them.

“Erica, go and grab the first aid kit.” Stiles restlessly shifted his weight from one foot to the other, eyes not leaving the tree line.

It took another few minutes of silence, but Stiles’ human ears finally picked up the sound of crunching leaves and snapping twigs, the low whimpering accompanying the trio of approaching wolves tugging at his chest.

Stiles was down the stairs and meeting them halfway when they came through the tree line. He took in how Derek and Jackson were supporting Isaac between them, the wolf’s left leg bent and raised, metal decorating his ankle.

“Jesus.” Stiles breathed, feeling anxious just looking at the pale, sweaty face of the boy.

“Get him inside and onto the couch.” Derek said to Jackson as they moved up the stairs, Isaac letting out a loud whine when his foot bounced too and connected with the wooden step.

Stiles followed them dutifully, eyes not leaving Isaac as he was gently lowered onto the couch inside, the rest of the pack falling back slightly to allow Derek and Stiles to take a closer look at the situation.

“Why haven’t you taken that off?” Stiles asked, gesturing with one hand to the bear trap that was tightly snared around Isaac’s ankle, the other reaching out and smoothing over a sweat damp forehead, trying to offer some form of comfort to the wolf.

“The metal’s been infused with wolfsbane.” Derek growled, voice gravel rough and eyes glowing softly with the red light of an alpha.

Stiles felt sick.

“Fuck.” He muttered, taking a moment to curse methodological hunters of the supernatural and their fucked-up brand of poaching.

“I can’t get a proper grip on the metal because of the wolfsbane.” Derek admitted, lips pulling back in a silent snarl when Isaac let out another pained whimper, face pushing into Stiles’ hand.

Stiles tried to think, to not focus on the intense need to comfort Isaac and look solely at the problem at hand. They needed a way to get the trap open, even if only for a few seconds, that would be enough for Isaac to pull his foot free. There was always the option of going and finding something to break the trap with, but the fact that it was infused with wolfsbane made Stiles reluctant to wait too long to remove it.

“What if,” he started, mind ticking over. “What if I held onto the trap, and you pulled my arms to part the jaws?”

“No.” Derek immediately shook his head, frown deepening.

“It might work, Derek.” Stiles’ voice was serious and void of any of his usual humour and sarcasm.

“I could also seriously injure you. What if you don’t have a proper grip? I could end up breaking your arms.” He snapped, the red intensifying in his eyes.

“No, you won’t. I’ll make sure my grip is firm. All you have to do is pull my arms apart, it’ll work.” Stiles forced conviction into his voice, moving his hand from where it had been comfortingly cradling Isaac’s head as he squatted down beside the trap.

It was an awful sight. The jaws looked huge in comparison to Isaac’s ankle, and Stiles didn’t need a medical degree to know that the bone had been broken by the impact of the teeth snapping closed. A thick, heavy set chain trailed after the trap, the end half covered in dirt suggesting that it had been buried deep in the ground in an effort to keep the victim in place. Thankfully, the wound wasn’t bleeding too much, the denim of Isaac’s jeans had soaked up what little blood there was. Stiles bitterly thanked whatever gods were listening that he couldn’t see where the teeth were no doubt buried into Isaac’s flesh as he was pretty sure the sight would have been enough to turn his stomach. As it was, he had to swallow hard and focus on the task he needed to accomplish.

Derek let out a low growl, but followed Stiles to the floor, crowding in close so that his broad chest was a firm wall of warmth along Stiles’ back. Strong, muscle bound arms wound around Stiles, large hands coming to rest lightly just below his wrists.

Glancing up at the other four pack mates present, Stiles offered a grim smile.

“Jackson, Boyd, hold Isaac down at his shoulders and hips, I don’t want him to move too much. Erica, as soon as the traps open, I want you to pull his leg free, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep it that way. Lydia, be ready with the first aid kit, we’re going to have to flush the wound before it’ll start healing.” Stiles said, voice calm despite the thundering of his heart.

The betas moved into position and Stiles took a deep breath, trying hard to ignore the distinct scent of iron in the air.

“Okay, this’ll be all over and done with in a moment, Isaac.” He tried to offer one last bit of comfort to the pained boy.

Carefully, he reached out his fingers and felt along the cool metal teeth of the trap, searching for an area that would give him a firm grip. Finally finding one, he blocked out the increase in pained sounds Isaac made, and took one last deep breath.

“Okay, on three.” Stiles said softly to Derek, the large hands on his arms tightening in response.

“One… two… three!”

Stiles grabbed hold for all he was worth, fingers burning almost immediately with pain as they felt like they were being wrenched from his hands. The tight bands of Derek’s fingers pinching into his skin guaranteed him a matching set of bruises on his arms tomorrow.

It only took a few seconds before the jaws began to pry open, Isaac’s foot was quickly pulled to safety and Stiles let the vicious teeth clang together on thin air with a loud, metallic thud.

He took a moment to breathe, heart thudding in his chest painfully as his fingers throbbed in time with it. Derek’s strong form behind him drew him back from the explosion of activity from the betas’. Lydia immediately moved to begin cleaning Isaac’s wound, as Erica held his leg aloft for her. Jackson and Boyd both had hands resting on Isaac’s skin as they drew pain from the younger wolf.

“Okay?” Derek asked him softly, warm breath fanning out over his ear as the hands that had held so tightly just moments ago now rested against his forearms, traces of black veins easing the burn in Stiles’ fingers.

“Yeah, just, give me a minute.” Stiles drew in another shaking breath, realising that he had been pulled back into the vee of Derek’s legs, knees bracketing where their arms were intertwined.

A small moan from Isaac pulled Stiles from his thoughts and, as his mind latched onto something else, Stiles gave Derek’s knee a pat before pushing himself up to his feet and moving closer to help Lydia.

Ten minutes later Isaac was patched up, Lydia cleaning up the used gauze and repacking the first aid kid. Isaac had been laid out on the couch, body turned towards the back of it with his still healing ankle elevated with a pillow. He was resting his head on Stiles’ lap, arms clinging to one of Stiles’ arms. Stiles, for his part, sat in the corner of the couch and let Isaac use him as a pillow, his free hand carding through blond locks slowly.

“Call Scott and Allison, I want both of them to help check the immediate area around the den, I don’t want any more of these traps surprising us.” Derek said to Boyd as he prepared to go into the preserve with the other wolves to try and sniff out any and all potential traps that had been laid for them.

“I need to run a few errands and see Deaton, but I’ll pick something up for dinner on my way back.” Lydia spoke to Stiles, her hand reaching out and running first through Stiles’ hair, and then Isaac’s.

“I was making stew.” Stiles half-heartedly protested.

“I’ll pack it away for tomorrow when I get back.” She promised with a small smile. He nodded, relieved that he didn’t have to move from his spot with Isaac. Lydia left, a large bag containing the bear trap in hand.

A warm hand slipped onto the back on his neck and then, similarly to Lydia, moved to clasp Isaac’s neck as well.

“We’ll be back soon, call if you need us.” Derek said quietly, leaning down over Stiles and placing Stiles’ phone on the armrest nest to him.

“Find all of them, Derek. It might not be a wolf that steps on one next time.” Stiles said, voice grim.

The alpha growled lowly, eyes flashing crimson, before turning and leading the three betas’ out of the house.

Stiles let out a sigh as quiet filled the air, only the warmth of Isaac, now safe and out of danger, kept him company. Fortifying himself with the knowledge that he may have to see another horrible thing like that again far sooner then he would ever want to, Stiles turned on the TV and lost himself in the make-believe show.

*

Stiles frowned down at his laptop in frustration, only for a soft snuffling sound from his left to distract him. Absentmindedly he reached out a hand and ran it over curly hair, the noise quieting down quickly.

If what he was reading about the Scandinavian runes he’d found was correct, then they were exclusively used as power focuses, designed to increase the levels of magical power and strength in the user. That combined with the rune Lydia had been looking at that morning, a Germanic one associated with theft, was drawing some alarming conclusions.

One way it could be interpreted, the way he hoped it wasn’t being used for, was that it would enable someone to steal someone’s magical power and strength. If the runes worked together successfully, they could take a person’s very essence from them.

The sound of feet on the porch pulled him from his darkening thoughts, and he looked up in time to see the wolves trooping back inside the den, Scott now among them.

“How’d you go?” Stiles asked quietly, eyes glancing over them all before coming to a rest on Derek.

“We found three more around the den and that alter you and Boyd discovered the other day.” Derek’s voice was almost a growl, the fact that strangers had managed to get so close to the den undetected not sitting well with him.

Stiles felt his worry increase.

“Allison’s taken them with her, as she’s the only one who can easily touch them.” Scott said, coming over and flopping down on a nearby loveseat, eyes drawn to where Isaac still slept upon the couch.

“How’s he doing?” Erica asked, moving over to them to run a hand through Isaac’s hair.

“He’s all healed up now, just sleeping it off.” Stiles said, closing his laptop and awkwardly leaning forward to place it on the floor.

“Good.”

“Lydia will be back with dinner soon.” Stiles offered as Derek moved into the kitchen, taking a glass from the drying rack and filling it with water.

The alpha grunted as the others made themselves comfortable before the TV, the mood still heavy with the lack of solid answers hanging over them.

“I’ll get dad to look into any unlicensed poaching in the area.” At the unimpressed look Derek sent him, Stiles shrugged. “You never know, they could slip up and he might be able to point us in the right direction, if nothing else.”

The fact that the wolves couldn’t track these people by scent was a serious problem, and not something they’d encountered before. It was throwing off the entire pack.

Derek walked over to the couch, finished with his glass in the kitchen, and moved the laptop from the floor to the small coffee table. Using more than a little bit of his extra wolfy strength, he lifted a protesting Stiles from the corner of the couch and deposited him back down in the middle. Isaac briefly let out a small, sleepy huff before he curled back up, head once more resting on Stiles’ thigh. Derek squeezed himself into the small pocket of space he’d made before pulling Stiles against his chest. An arm slipped around him so that Derek could run his fingers through Isaac’s hair, the pup letting out a happy, high pitched noise.

“Seriously? You couldn’t have just sat on the other end?” Stiles asked, exasperated with the ridiculousness of the man beside him.

Derek didn’t even bother to respond, eyes watching Isaac carefully for a moment before he settled back and turned his attention to the TV. Letting out a huff of his own, Stiles shifted slightly to get more comfortable, intentionally digging an elbow into Derek’s side out of pettiness, not that the man seemed to even feel it.

Stiles allowed himself to focus on the TV again, comforted by most of the pack surrounding them and the knowledge that it wouldn’t be long before Allison and Lydia returned.

*

The music from the old radio was turned down, the motor competing to be the loudest thing in the jeep, as Stiles idly drummed his fingers against the steering wheel as he drove both himself and Scott to his house. Since the bear trap last week, Derek had insisted on a buddy system for the pack, with no one venturing out by themselves. Stiles was pretty sure that if he could have gotten away with it, Derek would have demanded that they all stay at the den until the issue was resolved.

Actually, Stiles was pretty sure that if Derek could have his way, they’d all be living at the den indefinitely. Stiles knew that once they started finishing college and came back to Beacon Hill full time, they’d all be looking for somewhere to live that wasn’t their parents’ houses. He was sure that the den would be the perfect solution for all of them. Stiles wasn’t even a wolf with pack instincts, but even he could still feel a longing to be closer to the others. 

The sudden sputtering of the jeep’s engine caused Stiles to groan loudly, peering at his dashboard as if something there might explain why his baby was suddenly crapping out on him.

“Come on, I got you serviced just the other month.” He sighed loudly as the car literally sputtered to a stop in the middle of Penton Street.

“I’m sure it’s an easy fix.” Scott said loyally, and Stiles had never loved him more. If it had been anyone else in the car with him, Stiles knew they’d have made a comment about how old the jeep was and that he needed to retire it and get something more reliable. Stiles was determined to keep using the old jeep until it refused to start again.

Heaving out a sigh, Stiles undid his seat belt and opened his door, legs swinging around to get out of the jeep.

“Wait!” Scott suddenly cried, hand reaching out and grabbing hold of Stiles’ shoulder to prevent him from leaving the cabin.

Looking back at the beta in confusion, Stiles had just enough time to take in the frown on Scott’s face as he stared into the darkness around them, before the sound of shattering glass broke through the silence.

Scott let out a howl of pain, hand leaving Stiles and reaching up to cup his own shoulder where red was quickly blooming on the white material of his shirt. Stiles reared back instinctively, eyes darting from his hurt pack mate to the fresh bullet hole in his windscreen.

“Scott!” Stiles exclaimed, hand reaching out for the wolf.

A loud whine from the boy as his face scrunched up was all Stiles got before his brain kicked into gear and he awkwardly tried to get his phone from his jeans pocket. He just needed to get his phone out and call Derek. He had to let their alpha know what was going on.

Hands suddenly grabbed hold of his shoulders and he let out a surprised squawk as he was dragged bodily from the jeep, landing hard on the road with a yelp of pain as his ankle twinged unhappily.

“Stiles!” Scott yelled, beginning to move across the cabin seats in order to get to him, his blood leaking down his arm.

A loud bang from the roof of the jeep was quickly followed by the sound of metal shredding on metal as a long, slim pipping shot through the roof, angled down so that it struck Scott in the thigh and effectively pinned him to the seat. The beta let out another loud cry of pain, hands reaching for the pipping only to pull back quickly with what Stiles could just make out as wolfsbane burn.

“Scott! Let me go you – Scott!” Stiles struggled against the surprisingly strong hands that held him down, trying to shove his elbow back and catch his assailant.

“Do not struggle, child. It will be over soon.” A female voice said comfortingly, and Stiles felt his stomach drop.

“Let me go.” He did his best approximation of a growl, looking over to a familiar cloaked figure, one of the blondes from the grocery store. A second figure dropped down from the jeeps’ roof to reveal the other blonde, meaning the person still holding him was probably the brunette.

She smiled at him, unbothered by his struggles or the loud panting whine from Scott, still stuck helpless in the jeep.

Stiles had just enough time to see her raise her hand, the metallic glint of a gun shinning in the loan street light, before she whipped the barrel across his face and the world went dark.

*

Stiles woke up to a pounding headache.

Groaning, he squinted open his eyes, staring at the starry sky above him for a moment before his mind caught up with what had happened before he’d been knocked out.

Breathing in sharply, he went to sit up, only to find himself hindered by thick metal shackles circling both his wrists. Turning his head as best he could when on the ground, he quickly realised that the dampness beneath him was from the dirt and leaf litter of the preserve.

He was surrounded by trees in a circular manner and he felt his stomach drop. He was in a small clearing. Nothing looked familiar from where he lay, so it was unlikely that it was near the places he and the pack frequented.

Turning his head to inspect his bindings, dismay filled him at the thick links that connected to form a chain that was attached to a pick, driven deep into the ground. Shifting his legs, he hissed as pain flared from his right ankle, the throbbing ache matching the pounding of his head. A quick check of his other foot revealed similar shackles effectively pinned him on his back, limbs spread and looking at the night sky. A breeze swept through the area and, belatedly, he realised that he was missing his shirt, the cool earth causing goose-bumps to creep up along his skin.

The sound of murmuring pulled is attention from inspecting of his body, and he craned his neck up and back in an effort to see behind him. The three women were huddled together at the tree line, a brown box and a black satchel held between them.

“Hey!” Stiles called out, feeling his adrenalin kick in as he pulled uselessly at the shackles around his wrists.

The women ignored him and started bustling around the area. One blonde moved to the trees surrounding the small space and began inspecting them. Stiles strained his eyes slightly, just making out the now familiar runes carved into the bark. The other blonde pulled out some candles from the satchel and set them atop an alter that Stiles could barely see if his tipped his head back as far as it would go, back bowing off the ground with his efforts.

He quickly let his body fall back to the ground, the anxious feeling of exposing his throat so blatantly around a threat set his teeth on edge.

The brunette reached into the box and pulled out a small, fluffy rabbit. Stiles felt a slightly hysterical urge to crack a joke about magicians, but held his tongue as he realised the rabbit wasn’t moving. The woman approached him and he felt his skin crawl as he tried to move away when she dipped her fingers into the slit throat of the poor creature, before pressing bloody fingertips to Stiles’ bare chest.

“Hey – no! Oh, my God, that is disgusting. Can you not smear poor fluffy’s innards on me?” He pulled at his restraints again, squirming when the woman ignored him and merely went back for more, using the blood to paint runes onto his skin. His stomach rolled and he swallowed down the bile, choking on his own vomit was not the way he wanted to go.

Stiles tried to block out what was happening as the minutes passed, two more rabbits making an appearance from the brown box and more blood was painted on his chest and stomach. Finally, the brunette seemed satisfied and he watched in tense silence as she set the rabbits down around him, one on either side of him and the other at his feet. The two blonde women settled onto the ground, one on each side of his head, so close that if he’d turned his head he would have felt his nose brush up against their robe covered knees.

The duo began chanting in a language he didn’t recognise, though it did sound vaguely European in origin.

“Does anyone want to fill me in on what the hell is happening?” Stiles asked loudly, rattling his shackles uselessly. His heart was pounding in his chest and even the pain in his head and ankle was pushed to the back of his mind as he felt the panic building.

The brunette woman reached into the folds of her robe and pulled out an ornate dagger that caused the breath to hitch in Stiles’s throat.

“W-wait! Let’s talk about this for a second!” He cried out, breath fast and body instinctively pulling against his restraints.

He was once again ignored as the brunette swung a leg over him, her warm calves pressed against his thighs as she loomed above him.

“Wait…” Stiles felt his voice fail him, eyes glued to the dagger that was raised above the woman’s own head, the flickering light of the candles on the alter behind them all glinting off the jewelled handle.

The woman said something loudly in her foreign tongue, the chanting came to an abrupt halt, and Stiles had just enough time to slam his eyes shut as the dagger was plunged down and into his chest.

Pain ripped into him for a split moment, then everything just fell away.