The boy sitting on the tree stump can’t be much more than eight summers old, maybe less. He’s skinny, pale, his hair is closely shorn, and he has big, dull eyes that land on Derek first when they break the clearing. He doesn’t even flinch; Derek does.
The boy looks away, like he’s disinterested in the five partly shifted werewolves circling him. They’re not trying to be menacing; Derek’s mother, Talia, is one of the nicest women Derek has ever known. When thunderstorms roll over the landscape, she still lets him curl into her side at night, even though he is probably getting a bit too old to do that. If it were him, taken from his pack and thrust into another where he knew little of the customs and unfamiliar faces, he would be scared.
The child on the stump though, is just kicking his feet idly. His bare toes have visibly been scrubbed clean previous to the journey deep into the woods at the bottom of the mountain, as have his hands, but there are still traces of dirt under his nails, a faint scent of pine needles and grain clinging to the short remnants of his hair. He’s quite a few years younger than they usually are. Derek stays close to his uncle, eyes fixed on the boy, as Talia approaches the stump, her naked feet meeting the sun-warmed moss quietly. The boy doesn’t look up until she kneels in front of him, her clawed hands resting deceptively delicately on her knees.
“What is your name?” Talia asks. The boy just looks at her, face expressionless. Derek thinks maybe, just maybe, it would help if the boy saw a face more human-like, because most of the people in the village never saw a werewolf, but his mother won’t shift into something she isn’t just for the sake of comfort; this is what they look like. He has to get used to it at some point.
“It’s alright,” Talia continues gently, her voice muffled slightly by her fangs, “you can tell me. My family and I will keep your name safe.”
The boy glances up again, his eyes flitting over Derek’s older sister, his oldest cousin, his uncle, before landing on him. Derek has to brace himself not to recoil. His heart is hammering away, the noise thumping away in his ears until he can’t even hear the birds or the breeze or the rustling leaves anymore.
The boy’s eyes look dead. Derek doesn’t breathe until the child looks back to Talia, and then down at his hands again.
“I’m Stiles,” he mutters, voice high like a child’s should be, but entirely toneless.
“Hello, Stiles,” Derek’s mother smiles. “My name is Talia. Do you know why we’re here?”
The boy nods. His left leg is still swinging slightly, heel kicking against the rough bark of the stump. Tap, tap, tap.
“You’re taking me away.”
Derek knows this is his mother’s least favourite part; the initial realisation of the enormity of what they’re taking. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but he heard his parents talk about it the night before, and he couldn’t sleep. His mother has had to do it three times, now four, since she became alpha. Derek has only been alive long enough to experience it twice before, and it’s his first time being brought along – he isn’t a pup anymore, so he’s allowed to. There is a lot of tradition involved, things Talia needs to ask, things Derek doesn't understand, and he is starting to realise that those calm, procedural questions are what is making his heart race.
“Did you say goodbye to your parents?” Talia asks, kindly. The boy’s face lowers further.
“They died last winter,” he replies, and for the first time since they arrived, Derek feels his mother’s distress. He clenches his fists.
“Are you scared, Stiles?” his mother finally asks. The child looks up, and smiles in a way that makes Derek want to turn around and throw up in the tall grass of the tree line.
The child emissaries usually never live past their fifth year with the wolves, so usually, that means that the village sends someone older. Derek already dreads the next trip to the clearing, years from now.
Stiles takes to his role in the pack like dry twigs thrown to a flame: fast. His eyes are still dead throughout the summer, leading into fall, but by the time the leaves start changing, he’s sleeping tucked against Derek’s fur-covered flank with Talia on his other side. It’s part of the deal; the children stay with the alpha.
He never talks.
Derek’s aunts adore Stiles. His uncle thinks he’s a gorgeous little thing, tells him and the other little ones wicked stories from the world he has heard while travelling. Laura, the eldest of the kids, secretly brings him the good bits of game and rubs her muzzle against his growing hair when he’s about to fall asleep.
Derek is still wary. He isn’t sure why, isn’t sure if it’s the deadness in Stiles’ eyes or the way he follows Derek around like a puppy. By logical standards, he should be following little Cora around; they’re around the same age, same height too when Cora shifts to a more human skin. Stiles seems to have an undefinable purpose involving Derek that Derek can’t for the life of him figure out, and the mere thought agitates him and makes him itch. Sometimes, when Stiles has followed him a whole day while the adults have been out hunting, Derek takes off on four legs as fast as he can. Stiles gets lost once because of that – he just never stops walking in the direction Derek went. When Derek finds him, his face is streaked with dirt and tears, but he’s smiling, a vacant, colourless smile. He falls asleep draped over Derek’s back and keeps sliding off all the way back to the den, his thumb clutched sleepily between his lips and his bony knees digging into Derek’s flanks.
For all intents and purposes, Derek can not figure Stiles out, so he stops trying.
By the time the first winter rolls around, the whole pack is holding their breath. Despite their best efforts, Stiles is still frail with bones like a baby bird, and his skin is paper-thin. He spends the first two moon cycles of the winter with someone in the pack wrapped around him all day, and all night, shaking from the cold despite his thick, human clothes. It’s a miracle he makes it to spring, Derek thinks. It might have had something to do with the fact that Derek himself had foregone meal upon meal to keep Stiles warm in the least chilly corner of the den.
His eyes are still dead, but his smiles are becoming more real. He never says anything, but he has taken to howling with the pack on full moons, high pitched little yips that make Derek want to shift into a shape where he has the capacity to laugh, and laugh, and laugh until it hurts him.
Stiles makes it to his tenth, and his thirteenth and his sixteenth summer. His feet grow callouses and his legs long and strong, and his connection with the pack grows even more powerful with each turn of the seasons, centres each member and balances everything out. Derek can’t tell the difference between Stiles’ howl and an actual wolf’s howl anymore.
They still sleep next to each other, huddled close, Stiles’ now broad palms and long fingers twisted in Derek’s fur, but it’s just the two of them, a bit away from everyone else; it’s unusual for the child emissaries to grow so attached to someone other than the alpha, but no one says anything.
Derek finds himself fully grown and suddenly bone-deep terrified not of collecting the next child, but of losing the one they have. It doesn’t make sense that Stiles has made it to where he is, he really should be dead, quietly burned out with earth-bound magic as old as their species, little body given up before it ever got so big.
Stiles can run with them a whole day without getting tired, and he still doesn’t talk. They have entire conversations just with their eyes and Stiles’ hands in Derek’s fur.
(Sometimes Derek hears him murmur in his sleep, but he can’t make out the words, lies awake until the sun comes up and tries to make sense of where their lives are going. It was never this complicated for anyone before Stiles showed up.)
Stiles falls seriously ill his eighteenth spring, his tenth with the pack. He shakes and coughs and his skin is hot and clammy, and Derek thinks that he might die of a broken heart before Stiles does if it goes on. This is why he finds himself in a completely human-looking form for the first time in his life, striding towards the village at the foot of the mountain, some of Stiles’ minimal clothing covering what humans prefer to cover even when it’s hot out.
The second he sets foot inside the town boarder, the air changes. Derek knows they can tell that he is different, that he's a wild animal walking on his hind legs, just like he is able to tell if someone is made of human skin or just has the ability to put it on. No werewolves have set foot in the village since the day his mother became alpha and went down to renew The Deal. The flow of the people milling around him swoops with sudden anxiety, but Derek pays it no mind. He follows the smell of medical herbs, and no one stops him.
The village druid, nearly a century old, with whom the original pact was made decades upon decades ago, hands him herbs and thorough instructions fit for someone who has never dealt with illness in his life, and Derek can feel her eyes burning on his back all the way out of sight.
He sheds the human clothes and human skin as soon as he hits the tree line and wraps everything in Stiles’ clothes, faster on four legs. He ploughs through underbrush and scares away later potential prey for good, but he doesn’t care. The first steep ascent up the mountain makes his lungs burn and his legs quiver, and the growing scent of Stiles’ pain only makes him push himself harder. By the time Derek makes it back to the den, someone else has to actually treat Stiles with Derek’s newfound herbal knowledge, because he simply can’t stand. His mother sits with him in the clearing while he lies heaving for breath, the fear lodged between his ribs crashing over him like waves of rolling thunder. Talia, who always had a peculiar fondness for her two-legged form, sits cross-legged and pulls his head into her lap, strokes his ears and his muzzle and mutters soothing nothings in tongues humankind does not understand.
Derek listens to his mother’s voice and Stiles’ irregular heartbeat, and mourns everything he knows he is going to lose, most likely soon.
Derek doesn’t hear Stiles talk until his nineteenth spring.
Sometimes, if the weather is nice, they have taken to sleeping away from the den, chasing sunbeams when they travel up towards the tip of the mountain. Stiles likes the thrill of knowing he could fall. Derek makes sure it doesn’t actually happen. Sometimes they curl up under the divots in the cliffs, sometimes under the stars. They’re safe anywhere; no one is going to come near a wolf Derek’s size.
They still have conversations just with their eyes. Derek finds himself on two legs more often, because it grants him hands, and fingers, that have learned to crop Stiles’ hair or pull out large splinters or push him around so they can play-fight without Stiles being crushed.
They mate for the first time on one of these trips, on the dark, rich dirt near a trail they made themselves after countless journeys that way, Derek caught halfway between wolf and human, just like Stiles really has been since he made it through his first winter with the pack. Stiles pulls and tugs at him and Derek has never kissed someone with his human mouth, never really thought about it, but it’s nice, it’s right, Stiles is beautiful and strong and responsive and pushes Derek around just like he always does, bodily drapes Derek over his own back and bucks up against him.
Stiles finds his voice, and his words, around the time where Derek thinks that he might die right there on the spot, inside Stiles, around Stiles, Stiles clogging all his senses, hot and deafening to a point where it’s almost too much. His arms are braced on each side of Stiles’ broad shoulders, two sets of human nails digging grooves into the backs of his own clawed hands. Stiles snarls, impatient as he always has been, and then he starts swearing. Derek's hips stutter with the shock, because he has never heard Stiles make full sentences before, at least not while awake and aware.
Derek curls himself down over Stiles’ back and rests his forehead against the back of his neck, slipping in the sweat gathered there, wraps his arms around narrow hips and keeps moving frantically while Stiles just talks. It pours out of him like water from a stream. He talks about Derek’s hands, his mouth, about the way the really green moss by the lake feels under his feet, about Derek’s commitment to the pack, about the woods, about mates, and “for life”, and “I love you, you don’t understand, I love you so much it destroys me” and Derek comes with a dizzying hitch of breath a split-second before Stiles stops talking mid-sentence to groan like it’s killing him, and follow suit.
They lie still for a long while afterwards, Derek rolling off Stiles’ back and pulling him along. Derek makes himself as small as possible so he can fit easier into Stiles’ open arms. The ever-present fear of “when” is replacing the bliss, and Derek curls a shaking hand around Stiles’ hip.
“If I make it to twenty,” Stiles starts, his voice gravelly. Derek imagines he will always feel like he needs to hear more of it.
“If I make it to twenty, I’m going to make it to thirty, and forty. I can feel it. If I can just make it to twenty, everything will be fine.” He brushes a hand over Derek’s shoulder and doesn’t comment on the fact that Derek is trembling like he has a fever.
He makes it to twenty.