Of course Stiles wants to take it home.
Stiles wants to take it home, and it's not because of some buried-deep parental instinct or the tender, caregiving nature that Stiles clearly lacks. It's because Stiles is irresistibly drawn to bad ideas. See also: He's been dating Derek for the past three years and still hasn't realized that it's the stupidest idea he's ever had.
"Oh my f—fudging god, I do not," Stiles says, when Derek tells him he has the judgment of a particularly suicidal moth. "I deal only in fine, high-quality ideas."
"And children, apparently," Derek says, pointing at the tiny waif that's propped up on Stiles' hip, wrapped up in Stiles' arms, looking pleased with itself.
It's dirty and huge-eyed and streaked with mysterious blood. It's wearing something filthy that could be generously described as a dress but looks more like a sheet, and it's all so Dickensian, it's almost over the top. Stiles is falling for the whole thing hook, line, and sinker.
"Come on, are you serious right now?" Stiles asks. Derek doesn't answer because it's clearly a rhetorical question; Stiles is already going on, anyway. "She's like... three, maybe. Alone in the woods. In the middle of the night. All covered with blood and intrigue." God, of course it's the blood that does it, Derek thinks; a little child alone in the woods is one thing, a little child covered in someone else's blood is another. Stiles isn't really all that interested in kids, usually, but he's attracted to mysteries. "So you want to, what, just walk away, leave her here by herself?"
"Yes," Derek says, and the tiny thing in Stiles' arms whimpers, turns its tear-streaked, round-cheeked face against Stiles' chest like it's going to cry some more. "That's not a child, Stiles, it's a changeling."
Derek's never actually seen a changeling before, but it could hardly be more obvious. For one, the kid really has come out of nowhere, no parents to be found, and not just that but no scent trail to follow, either. It's like it suddenly just came into being in the middle of the forest floor, springing forth from a pile of pine cones and decaying leaves. Add to that the fact that the kid smells more like loam and pine sap than human infant, that she has Stiles' stupid cute nose and Derek's stupid bunny teeth, and the thing might as well be wearing a sign around its neck that says I'm here to destroy you and all that you hold dear. Derek's uncomfortable enough with how close the damned thing is to Stiles' throat right now, he is not bringing it home for dinner.
"Okay, granted, we did find her like right smack in the middle of a fairy ring, and I don't think those kinds of mushrooms are even supposed to grow in California," Stiles says, but his broad hand is also rubbing at the changeling's shaking back. "So maybe she's a changeling. But that doesn't mean she's not a person."
Derek throws his hands up, mostly to resist the urge to tear out his own hair in frustration. He can't take it out on his hair. He puts effort into making his hair look good. "That's exactly what it means, Stiles! Now put it down."
"What if changelings are like baby birds?" Stiles says, looking down at the thing in his arms, and it looks back up at him with big, wet, hazel eyes, Derek's eyes. Derek feels like he's violated just by virtue of this thing's existence. "What if, like, mama changeling won't take it back now that I've touched it?"
"That's not even true about birds," Derek says. He's resisting the urge to just tug the thing out of Stiles' arms and put it up in a tree somewhere that Stiles can't reach it. Maybe it'll be adopted by an owl. Maybe it'll be eaten by a vulture. He couldn't care less. "And if changelings have parents, hers would be that fucking jackass" — Stiles interrupts with a hiss, awkwardly and belatedly trying to clamp his arm around the changeling's head, so it won't hear the swear words — "who calls himself the 'King of Fairies.' Remember him? Flower crown, persistent smirk, been making our lives hell in the most annoying ways for the last month, trying to run us off our own territory?"
"She doesn't seem to talk," Stiles says. "Is she old enough to talk? I don't even know. I'll have to call my dad in the morning, he's like frighteningly good at babies."
"It's not a baby, Stiles," Derek says, but he already knows that the situation is beyond help. "It's not a person. And we are not taking it home."
They take it home.
Stiles tries to give it a name while they're in the car, cycles through a whole ridiculous list of them starting with Disney characters — "Cinderella? Aurora? Ariel? Pocahontas?" — and ending with superheroes — "Black Widow? Captain Marvel? Zatanna?" — like he's waiting for the kid to give a nod when she hears something she likes. He offers up some traditionally male names, too, just in case, but the changeling apparently doesn't want to be called Steve or Tony or Bruce or Bucky either, and Derek is going to throw Stiles' entire movie collection out the window when they get home.
"Hey, I get it, there really is only one Black Widow," Stiles says, staring down at the creature in his lap. He's sitting in the back, acting like a human booster seat because airbags kill apparently, and the changeling is playing with his long fingers. Derek can't stop glancing at them in the rearview mirror.
He's not going to offer a suggestion, he isn't, except Stiles looks a little downcast that none of his ideas have stuck, and — well, they do need to call the thing something.
"It's a fairy, sort of," Derek offers. "They like growing things."
"Oh," Stiles says. "Huh." Like it's never occurred to him that Derek could have a good idea. Derek's working on a good idea right now that involves Stiles never getting laid again. "Okay, how about.... Primrose. Poppy. Blossom. Bluebell."
"It's not a cow," Derek says, but Stiles ignores him, and the changeling's looking progressively more interested, too. It peers up at Stiles' face like it's waiting for him to guess the right one, like it already has a name and it just needs him to stumble onto it. It'll be another five minutes before they get home and Derek's going to be ready to give up on life by then.
"Jasmine. Ivy. Lily. Petunia. Rose. Willow."
"Are you still on plants or are you headed back into moronic television territory?" Derek asks.
"Please, like you're not a gigantic nerd, you'd probably vote for Danaerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, and that's just too long to say, Derek. That's like calling her Rhododendron or something."
The changeling slaps its little palm against Stiles' hand, like it's giving him a very down-low high-five. It's smiling, and the expression is downright cherubic, even with its replica Derek-teeth. It might be an evil killing machine of some kind, but Derek has to hand it to that flower-crown-wearing idiot out in the woods, his secret assassins come with pretty heart-melting craftsmanship.
"Rhododendron, seriously?" Stiles says, and laughs. "That's a mouthful, kid."
"No," Derek says.
"Okay, Rhodey it is," Stiles crows, like Derek hasn't spoken at all. He pulls the changeling's hand into the air so they can slap their palms together again, properly this time. "I approve, Colonel. Excellent choice."
"This isn't happening," Derek says, as he pulls the Toyota into their driveway. He doesn't bother with the garage, in case they need to make a quick get-away when the changeling decides to commence whatever slaughter it has planned.
"We can't take her back now, Derek, I'm already planning her War Machine costume for Halloween," Stiles says. He gets out of the car with a changeling child in his arms, slings it over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes while it squeals with high-pitched laughter, and Derek can't really do anything but follow.
Derek finds them in the bathroom, later, and he's maybe a little bit surprised that the kid didn't sprout or something on contact with water, but it still looks normal enough, and with the blood and dirt washed away Derek can see the little spray of moles on its pale cheek. Its wet hair is heavily lathered and spiked into a mohawk, and Stiles is kneeling next to the tub, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, the lines of his tattoos seeming to bend where they meet the water.
"What did Scott say?" Stiles asks, without even looking behind him. "Did you tell him he's going to be the godfather? Because he is."
Derek leans against the frame of the open door, crosses his arms over his chest and tries to pretend that the whole situation isn't squeezing his heart tight. It looks so— but this isn't something he can have, or even consider. "He was disappointed we didn't name her Scottella."
"That sounds like some sort of food product," Stiles says. "Or toilet paper maybe. New rule, Scott's not allowed to name things." The changeling splashes water at him and he splashes it right back, which is probably the world's worst way to bathe a child because it's obviously going to end with bathwater all over the floor.
Derek needs to stop thinking of it as a child. Stiles is a bad fucking influence.
"He said he'll check in with us in the morning, see if we're still alive, and he wants Deaton to take a look at her. He'll check in with the others to arrange a pack meeting. What's your play here, exactly?"
"You sure you want me to talk about that in front of the enemy?" Stiles asks. He gives the last couple words not just extra emphasis but extra drama, and he holds his wet fingers up and wiggles them like sodden jazz hands.
"I don't know, okay?" He rests his forearms on the edge of the tub and stares at the changeling. It stares back. "You know me, I don't... I've never even thought about kids. But she's got your eyes. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with that."
"That's why Mr. Flower-Crown made it that way," Derek says. He tries to sound gentle, but it still comes out too hard.
Stiles blinks, and then snorts, and his shoulders slump suddenly like he's given up on leaning against something. "You've got to give up on this jealousy, man. You're the prettiest supernatural creature in all the kingdom, okay? I'll make you your own flower crown. I know you want one. You are like obsessed, man, just own it."
Derek wants to look away from the slope of Stiles' back, the terrible gentleness of Stiles' hand as he drags water out of the tub by the palm-full to rinse the shampoo from the changeling's hair. Derek wants to look away, but he can't.
"You're changing the subject," he says.
"Yeah, well," Stiles says. "She's got your eyes, Derek. I couldn't leave her out there. Maybe she's got your heart, too."
The changeling doesn't kill them during the night.
They take her over to Deaton's early in the morning, because he wants to see her in person, and he shines lights into her eyes and rubs strange leaves against her skin and makes uninformative noises, like he always does, and then he says, "You do realize this creature was sent to kill you?"
"We figured," Stiles says. "Must be a Monday. We're not dead, though. So that's good, right?"
The look on Deaton's face is skeptical. "What did it do last night? Any strange behavior? Staring into space, like it was listening to distant voices?"
"No," Derek says. "Stiles taught her how to play Mario Kart."
"She really likes Princess Peach," Stiles says. "And she's got a knack for grabbing mushrooms. Does plant affinity translate to video games? It seems kind of unfair."
"You got schooled by a toddler, learn to deal with it," Derek says, rolling his eyes.
He's not in the greatest mood this morning; Stiles fell asleep on the couch last night with Rhodey sprawled across his lap, upside down and snoring. Stiles had her dressed in one of Derek's t-shirts like a particularly shapeless dress, the hem stretching all the way to her feet, and it made her smell like family, even if she wasn't. Derek stayed up all night to watch over them, but the most that happened was the both of them shifting into increasingly ridiculous positions the longer they slept. Stiles wound up half fallen onto the floor with his face smashed into the carpet and the rest of him still on the couch; Rhodey slept curled up on the backs of his thighs, her shoulders propped against his calves, her tiny fist tucked against the back of his knee.
It's almost like she takes after him, that way.
"Well, the bad news is, it was definitely supposed to kill you," Deaton says. He's staring gravely at Rhodey when he says it, and she just blinks back at him. "The good news is, evidently your attacker made a grave miscalculation. He could have made this changeling to look like any child at all, but he went the extra mile to make it look like the two of you. Derek, I believe you lost a lot of blood recently?"
Derek blinks. "Yes. I was attacked by a giant tentacle plant last week."
Stiles claps his hands over Rhodey's ears. "I've seen Japanese porn that starts that way but this was totally not that. There were thorns. It was traumatic."
"You've lost something, too, Stiles," Deaton says. "New haircut?"
"Ah, yeah," Stiles says, with a grimace. He lets go of Rhodey to run a nervous hand over his head, scrubs at the fresh buzzcut. "There was a thing with like... spores? Pollen? Anyway, it sort of... stuck to my hair, like gum. I had to shave it to get the stuff off. And my clothes were a total loss."
Deaton says, "Well, that explains it. Traditionally, changelings are made to look like a human child that's already been born, to mimic them; since the two of you don't have a child of your own, this one was made out of pieces of the two of you, harvested by your fairy king for specifically this purpose."
"You're saying she's super cute because we're super cute," Stiles guesses.
"I'm saying there's a piece of both of you in her make-up. And the two of you, despite all appearances, don't ever genuinely want to kill each other. I suspect the child takes after her parents, in that respect."
"Soooo, you're saying she's not going to murder us after all?" Stiles says. "Hey, that's awesome. I think that deserves ice cream." He looks down at Rhodey like he expects her to be excited at the words 'ice cream,' but it's not like she's a dog who's learned to recognize 'cookie' when she hears it. She doesn't know what ice cream is. She beams back at him because he's beaming at her, that's all. She's like a tiny mirror. A tiny mirror with intense knowledge-absorbing qualities, because no toddler should be quite that good at Mario Kart. Derek will need to be careful about how much time she spends with Stiles, if he doesn't want her first words to be video game-related smack-talk.
"I think it's unlikely that her creator will be able to exert the kind of control over her that he expected to," Deaton allows. "But it's not impossible. She's a danger to you as long as this 'fairy king' lives."
"Well, that's easy," Stiles says. "We ice Lord Flowercrown and we get to keep the kid like a door prize."
"She's not a stray puppy, Stiles," Derek says.
"You were calling her 'it' yesterday, Derek," Stiles snaps. He picks Rhodey up from behind, swoops her up onto his shoulders while she laughs and tries to cling at his too-short hair. He walks out with her, and doesn't look back at either of them. The clinic's front door rattles shut behind them, the metal bell above it sounding like a declaration.
Derek takes a deep breath, stands with his hands braced on the exam table, still warm from Rhodey's little body. He meets Deaton's eyes and holds that gaze, for a long moment, just to be sure the man's going to take his question seriously.
"If we kill this King of Fairies, does his magic die with him?"
"You mean, does the changeling die with him?" Deaton clarifies, raising his eyebrows in that infuriating way he has. "There's no way to know. You'll have to kill him, if you want to keep her. And when he's dead you may end up with nothing to keep. The odds don't look good, from where I'm standing. I wouldn't get attached."
"You just said he made her out of pieces of us," Derek says. "It's a little late for that."
Stiles and Rhodey are waiting at the car, when Derek shoulders his way out of the vet clinic's front door. Rhodey's sitting on the Toyota's hood and Stiles is wiggling her toes, playing some kind of game, although the line of his back is tense.
"Stiles—" Derek says, but he doesn't get any further.
"I know. Just—" Stiles stops, blows out a harsh breath. "She needs clothes."
"Okay," Derek says, softly.
"She needs shoes and maybe chicken nuggets."
"Okay." He leans in, close, and Stiles sways in his direction too, almost unconsciously, the way it's been between them for ages. Their lips meet slow, soft, easy, reassurance and apology in their shared breaths if not in their words.
They don't know what the hell to do with a child, either of them, and Stiles hasn't called his dad yet, either. But they're doing this anyway.
Rhodey doesn't seem to have a preference when it comes to clothes, so Stiles picks things out for her: little boots, and tiny jeans, and soft v-neck t-shirts, because he thinks it's funny when kids' clothes look like adult clothes that have been hit by a shrink ray. She laughs about it when he laughs about it, and the rest of the time she just watches them both, head cocked, flat-eyed like a bird, like she's seeing right into them, like she's learning. If Stiles shows her how to open a book, she'll flip through the rest of the pages of her own volition. If he shows her how to play with a toy, she'll do exactly as he did, and then embellish, improve, invent.
It doesn't seem entirely normal, to Derek, but he already knows she's not normal, and mostly he just thinks that it means she's— well, she's alive in there. Not just a puppet for the King of Fairies, not an automaton running a program; she's a person, like Stiles said in the beginning. Derek tries not to think what that means, tries not to imagine her falling apart, magic undone, existence unbound.
Stiles finds her an Iron Man t-shirt and a War Machine action figure, and for awhile they just wander the aisles in the Target store, because they don't really know what else kids need but they figure whatever it is, they'll probably stumble across it. They get a car seat and sippy cups and a bunch of things like shampoo and toothpaste that have the words "for kids" on the package. They spend an exorbitant amount of money when they check out, and when Derek swallows down the words she might not stay, when he buries them beneath his tongue and refuses to speak them, it's not just for Stiles' sake.
Derek sets up the car seat, and when he lifts Rhodey into it he's not even thinking about it, but it's the first time he's actually touched her.
She doesn't feel like there's anything unreal about her, but he supposes that's kind of the point.
"So she's, what, like a bomb or something?" Isaac asks. He sounds skeptical, probably because Rhodey has just spent four hours watching Iron Man cartoons on Netflix, and she's running laps around the living room, pretending she's flying a mechanized suit. She's starting to smell less like moist soil and the exhalation of plants, and more like laundry detergent and french fries. She's also stopped spending so much time watching them with unnerving intensity.
Derek slaps a hand over Stiles' mouth, because he's long since declared a moratorium in their household on anything being called "the bomb." Related terms like "bomb diggitty," "da bomb," and "bomb ass" are also prohibited. He's planning to be particularly strict about these rules while Rhodey is in her language-absorption phase. She's started making nonsense noises and her first real word was "Derek," which Stiles would probably be moping about if it wasn't delivered in his own uniquely exasperated tone of voice. She says it all the time now, in reaction to everything Derek does, because it makes Stiles laugh every single time.
She's growing up in the span of a day, adapting, becoming something, and Derek tries not to worry that she's a mayfly, built to flutter and fade and die.
"Deaton thinks she's supposed to kill us," Derek says. "Or was made to, anyway. But she's just... not."
"How would she even, anyway?" Scott says. Rhodey likes him, keeps bumping into his legs as if drawn to him by magnetism; Derek wonders if it's the pack instinct, coming through to her somehow, pulling her toward her Alpha. "She's tiny. She's incredibly tiny and like one hundred percent adorable."
"She's like a Powerpuff Girl," Stiles says, and Derek doesn't even know what that is. "Little but mighty. I mean, in theory. We haven't seen her bench press any cars or anything."
"You're keeping her," Scott says, and it's not a question. Rhodey spins another lap around the room, bumps into Scott's legs again accidentally-on-purpose, and just clings for a minute, like a squirrel on a tree.
Stiles says, "Well, yeah," like they have a plan, like they've thought it through, when they haven't. Derek's itchy, like all of his instincts are prickling to life beneath his skin, and Stiles is getting progressively more manic, like he knows he has to be doing something but he doesn't know what.
"It's not that simple," Derek says. It stands to reason, because nothing in their lives ever is. But it needs to be decided, one way or another, it needs to be certain, because Derek keeps wavering wildly between trying not to get attached and trying to plan for a future they probably won't get. It's like having double vision; it gives him a headache.
"We'll make it simple," Scott says, and Derek knows it's a promise he may not be able to keep.
Still, it feels good to have the pack there, filling the house little by little, as they all trickle in from work and school and the ordinary things they all do with their time, when they're not solving monster mysteries. Scott and Isaac turned up first, and Allison is next, still in her deputy uniform. (Rhodey gets transfixed by the badge for a little while, then stares at Allison with her eyes wide and her mouth open. She doesn't seem to know what fear is, doesn't recognize the gun at Allison's hip as a danger, but she puts her hands on Allison's face like she's just discovered the concept of beauty.) Erica and Boyd bring dinner with them, and Jackson and Lydia — mostly Lydia — bring ideas.
"I want to see her change," Lydia says, before she even greets anyone; she drops her purse on the kitchen island and stares narrow-eyed at Rhodey, who's stopped playing War Machine long enough to stare back.
"What, like shift? Werewolf-type shift? We don't even know if she can. Or what she'd shift into. Or whether it would turn her into a homicidal killing machine." To say Stiles seems uncomfortable with the idea is an understatement.
"We need to see what she's made of," Lydia says, impatient. Jackson starts digging in to the food on the counter, like he doesn't give a shit, but he's watching them all out of the corners of his eyes.
"I feel like this isn't going to involve an inspiring athletic-training montage," Stiles says. His voice wavers a little.
Derek ignores him, because they don't really have time for this. He settles down on the floor, cross-legged, and Rhodey says, "Derek," in that disapproving tone of voice that sounds just like Stiles, but she also crawls right into his lap, like she knows he's made a place for her there. He touches her face, so she touches his back, and he waits until she's getting a little bored with the whole thing before he pulls the change over himself, sprouts hair and fangs and feels his face shift into a new shape.
Rhodey squeaks in surprise, and then she shifts too, mirroring him the way she's being doing with both of them since they found her, and her face is— it's something different.
She's got a long, gaping, triangular mouth and tiny, wickedly pointed teeth, eyes dark all across their surface, her face given over to strange animal planes. Stiles at least could've easily died beneath that jaw by now, if she'd decided to kill him, but he's fine, they're all fine, even Rhodey, who snarls and twists in Derek's arms like she wants to get away, not like she wants to rip him to pieces.
He holds on to her, just in case, and when he shifts back, so does she, blinking her suddenly-human eyes at him, like she's not quite sure what's happened.
"Hah," says Lydia, like it's just as she expected. "There are two types of changelings, essentially: ones created from inanimate objects, and ones that are living things to begin with. The first kind are magically-animated puppets, essentially; wear out the magic that makes them real, and they become just a pile of kindling again."
"But you said the second kind are already alive," Erica says. When Derek lets Rhodey go, and the child goes streaking past her, Erica catches her with a little growl and playfully pins her down, while Rhodey shrieks like it's the most fun she's ever had. It probably is, come to the think of it; she's only had a day's worth of human living, yet. "So what happens to them?"
"Nothing," Allison says, and there's a slow smile pulling at her lips, like she's tracking where Lydia's headed. "They were always alive, they keep on living."
"A living changeling is usually a fairy baby, or some kind of elf or troll, but the important part is that it's alive," Lydia says. "You can try to force a changeling to reveal its nature, you can make it stop pretending to be your own baby, you can even kill it, but it's essentially just a disguised version of itself. It's a shapeshifter that's learned how to take a specific human face. It's a skill it learns. It can stop practicing, but it doesn't stop being. She was never a fairy, or anything like it; I think she started out as an animal. Maybe a weasel."
"A weasel," Stiles says, faintly.
"Please, you're dating a werewolf, your daughter's a weasel, this is hardly that challenging a concept," Lydia says. "The King of Fairies takes a weasel, a living thing, and he turns it into the sum of your parts, makes it something like human, but stronger, more cunning, more adaptive. Fairies are supposed to have pretty powerful magic, so it's not that hard for him. But if he wanted it to kill you, he could've given you a fairy in disguise. A soldier, maybe. Something that wouldn't hesitate to strike. You'd be dead already. So we have to ask ourselves, why make such an unreliable killer? One that seems to have completely forgotten what it was made for?"
Derek watches Rhodey, squirming and giggling under Erica's hands, more than human enough.
"Because he hasn't got any fairies to send after us," Derek says. "Not a one."
"He had like, hundreds, though," Scott says. His brow is furrowed, but he doesn't look confused, he looks mad. He gets it. "When he put us through that ridiculous 'audience' in the woods—"
"An illusion," Derek says, and it all makes sense now, the way the 'King' has been toying with them. He's not toying at all, he's just not strong enough to take them all on alone. He's trying to bluff them out of their territory. "He's the king of nothing. He's all alone."
"Precisely," Lydia says, and examines her nails like a lioness reading her weapons for the hunt.
The king doesn't have to die, as it turns out; when the pack tracks him down, with all the force of certainty and numbers behind them, and with his pretense shattered and his illusions no longer effective, he flees instead of fighting. Scott says he can feel it when the lone fairy finally leaves their territory, like a persistent itch between his shoulder blades has finally vanished. Derek genuinely doesn't care whether the king is alive or dead, but he's terrified about the ruin the fairy might have left in its wake.
He's almost afraid to go home, after, afraid that he'll find Rhodey limp and broken, strings cut, with magic seeping right out of her bones. She's fine, though, tucked into the crook of Stiles' elbow and sleeping with her head thrown back at an impossible angle, just the same bone-cracking way that Stiles does. She lives, and she lives, and she lives, even when Deaton thinks her lifespan should have passed her by, and she smells nothing like magic and foreboding anymore; she smells like Derek and Stiles, like family, like theirs. She thrashes everyone at Mario Kart and she says that things are "the bomb" because Stiles is a terrible influence on her vocabulary, and she lives a perfectly ordinary life — well, ordinary perhaps by a certain standard — bracketed safely between the two men she's made of.