Derek smells the bitter stink of fear even before the bell jangles. He sets down a stack of paperbacks and hurries to the front counter to greet his customer. "Can I help you?" he asks as he sizes up the young man.
He's lanky—long, narrow limbs and prominent cheekbones, shadows under his eyes and a maroon hoodie pulled low over his forehead. He reeks of sweat and the indelible aroma of antifungal foot powder from the Beacon Hills High locker rooms. The dark eyes he turns on Derek are glazed with adrenaline, not really seeing him for a few quick blinks, before he catches his breath and shakes his head.
"Uh, hi. I was wondering if you have any books on Beacon Hills's history? Or the whole county, really. First settlers, geographical surveys, journals and stuff. Um, it's for a report I'm writing."
Derek doesn't bat an eye at the obvious lie. "Sorry, I don't carry anything specifically about the area. Nonfiction is on that wall, though. Maybe there's something else that could help?"
The guy shuffles toward the shelves, fingers stretched out to run over the spines. And oh great, he's the kind of customer who browses with hands instead of eyes. Derek watches closely from across the room to make sure he isn't leaving smudges, and notices the bitten-down nails, the trembling fingers.
"I'm Derek," he says, offering a friendly smile to set the potential customer at ease. "And you are?"
"Stiles," the guys says, and then tries to shrink inside his clothes with a half-audible "crap." His body language reads more shoplifter than student of local history, except he seems to want as much distance between himself and the front door as possible. What the hell has him so spooked?
"Nice to meet you, Stiles. Is there anything else I can help you find?"
"Maybe. Do you keep newspaper archives?"
"No. Those would be at the library."
"No duh," Stiles mutters to himself. He reaches the nature section of nonfiction in the back corner of the shop. In the convex security mirror, Derek watches him pick up a copy of Going Wild: Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness. Stiles scowls at the dust jacket and shoves it back with force. "What about folk tales? Urban legends?"
"Sorry, no. I do have a few books on conspiracy theories," Derek offers. For no reason he can explain, they seem to fly off the shelves. But then, Beacon Hills is a strange town. "Plus there's a wide selection of speculative fiction—everything from supernatural romance to hard sci-fi. I prefer thrillers, myself."
Stiles peeks around the freestanding shelves, and Derek hopes he's actually going to engage in conversation. But Stiles's gaze lands on the glass door, and his heart rate spikes violently before he ducks behind the next bookcase. When Derek checks the door, the last rays of sunset are fading from the sidewalk outside, and Main Street looks mostly deserted; typical for a Monday in November. He doesn't see anything that should frighten the guy this much, but it's definitely outside that's got him shaking in his sneakers. Derek steps out from behind the counter, super casual, until he's standing between Stiles and the door.
"What do you usually read, when you aren't working on reports?"
"Um, horror. Monsters and stuff," Stiles says—which doesn't sound like the best choice for someone wound so tight.
Derek listens to the shushing sound of fingers dragging over book covers before calling, "People love bookshops. They can be a great place to escape, to get away from whatever's stressing you out. Do you ever feel like that? Like you just want to…escape somewhere?"
There's a long silence, and then Stiles steps into the aisle, eyeing Derek suspiciously. He catches on quick, Derek thinks, but he doesn't withdraw the question. If this guy's hiding from someone, bullies or whatever, Derek will do his best to help him out. He's stronger and faster than he looks, and he comes with a lot of backup when needed.
"I'm just shopping, man. For a project," Stiles says with the most theatrical eye roll Derek's ever seen.
Or he could be an asshole about it, fine. "Well, you're standing in the self-help section," Derek snots back. He stands his ground at the front door, tweaking the layout of the bestsellers table while Stiles mutters his way around the back of the shop, griping under his breath about the lack of selection in Beacon Hills's last privately owned bookshop.
Derek ignores the bitching but keeps his ears up, hoping Stiles will reveal something about who he's hiding from. Stiles eventually stops in front of the how-to section and sighs. "DIY Plumbing? Resume Writing? Come on, where's the stuff this town actually needs: Druids and You; Protective Circles for Dummies; How to Face a Coven and Still Graduate on Time?"
Derek nearly knocks over a display rack.
"Even a flamethrower assembly guide. That might work. Fuck this town so hard."
What the hell? How does he know about the druids…or the dark coven that turned Laura into a squirrel for a few hours? Derek is doubly glad he's positioned in front of the door. Because Stiles isn't leaving this shop before Derek gets to the bottom of whatever he's up to, including how much Stiles knows about werewolves. He clears his throat. "So what's your project on? Local history, you said?"
"Yeah," Stiles says absently.
"You know, Beacon Hills is a pretty strange place. My family's lived here for generations, and we've seen some pretty wild things."
That gets Stiles's attention. "Wild? Like what?"
"Nothing I'd swear by, but the family home is out in the woods, and you hear things at night—sounds you can't explain. See lights bobbing through the trees—"
"Lights? Yellow lights?"
Aha. Derek gives a half-nod and lets Stiles interpret that however he wants.
"Close-set? Like…they could be eyes?"
"They could be deer," Derek says, playing along.
"No, deer eyes need light in order to reflect light. I mean literal, glowing eyes."
Stiles's own eyes are intent, his hand clenched around a copy of Become a Millionaire in Five Years or Less. Derek's hackles rise as he listens to the honesty in Stiles's rapid breaths. "It's a really weird town," Derek says, dangling a bit more bait to draw Stiles out. "I've seen things that rational people wouldn't believe."
"Lots of people go missing in the woods," Stiles says, drifting closer to him.
"And they always get found, alive. No one's turned up a body out there in years." That's hedging the truth, but Derek isn't letting this conversation turn into a witch hunt against his family. "The woods seem safe as ever."
"Because it's moved into town," and Stiles's voice quavers, threatens to break. His gaze returns to the door. And he clearly isn't afraid of Derek or Derek's family. He's afraid of….
"What's out there?" Derek asks, voice soft.
Stiles gulps, loud in the small shop. "Something you don't wanna meet in a dark alley. Believe me."
Derek believes him—boy, does he ever—but this guy is way too dialed in for comfort. Derek wants to press for more information—like what is it that has glowing yellow eyes and is prowling the streets right now—but he can't afford to reveal his own secrets in the process.
Stiles must read Derek's wariness. He blinks, straightens up, and grimaces. "Sorry, I've probably been reading too many horror novels, ha ha."
"You sound a little out there," Derek lies, "but I'm not saying I don't believe you. We both know that weird stuff happens around here. If you think you have a lead on something, I'm game to listen."
Stiles watches him for a long moment, considering. Derek tries his best to look sincere, curious, and nonjudgmental. At last, Stiles shoves his hands in his pockets and nods. "Can't hurt."
Derek keeps one ear on Stiles while he fixes them some coffee in the back. It's possible the guy will change his mind and rabbit. Derek suspects chasing him down would only spook Stiles worse, so he hopes it doesn't come to that.
When he returns to the shop proper, Stiles has dragged a stool up to the counter and is sitting, kicking his heels against the lower rung. He looks up, and Derek sees the recognition on his face before Stiles breathes, "You're Derek Hale. God damn, you grew up hot. Crap, sorry, I didn't mean to say that."
Derek smirks and hands over one of the mugs. "I don't mind a compliment," he says, and is pleased to see Stiles crack a smile for the first time since he arrived. He still smells nervous, but the terror has dialed down a bit; that's an even better compliment. "Have we met before?"
"Nah. Your picture's in the trophy case. And I used to go to the games, when you played varsity. The best attacker Beacon Hills ever had."
"Thanks." There are things Derek usually says to his fans: praise for his teammates; gratitude for the fans' support; asking if whoever he's talking to plays lacrosse themselves. But Derek is on a mission right now; pleasantries can wait. He decides to broach the subject the same way Stiles began. "So what are we talking about here? Local history, urban legends? You came in looking for something specific."
Stiles's smile dissolves into a grimace, bringing out deep lines that look like they've been etched there for years. "Specific…and supernatural."
"You mean monsters?"
"Yeah, monsters. And faeries. And druids. There was a nogitsune last year—"
"What's a nogitsune?"
"Ugh, the worst. Although, not the actual worst, since it didn't technically kill anyone—just caused a lot of trouble and injuries. It's a Japanese chaos demon, strong and clever like a fox; took me three weeks and a fucked-up blood ritual to banish it. Two pints, and I still had to go to lacrosse practice the next day."
The words coming out of Stiles's mouth don't match up with any creature Derek's heard of, but he can tell Stiles believes them, so he'll give him the benefit of the doubt for a bit. At least he's finally opening up, gestures flying as he babbles. Derek gets the feeling Stiles will reveal everything he wants to know if he just keeps the guy talking.
"Beacon Hills seems to be a magnet for supernatural shit—our very own Hellmouth, if you're up on the lingo. Or maybe it's just me, maybe I'm the magnet. But if I let myself think like that, I'll go completely batshit, and I don't want to wind up in Eichen House like Harley." He pauses for breath and resumes in a hush. "But as for what's out there right now…I think it's a hidebehind."
The word sparks some primal instinct, sends Derek's blood racing with thoughts of carnivore, rival, must defend territory. "I've heard of it…I think," Derek says. He tries to remember the source of the memory. Was it his aunt? His grandmother?
Stiles leans in, elbows braced on the counter and eyes boring into Derek, clearly willing him to believe. "It's a nocturnal predator, extremely strong and fast. It lives in the woods, stalking from the shadows. And when you turn around to catch it, it'll lengthen its body, make itself thin enough to hide behind the trees. You'll never see it coming—not unless it wants you to. And then it'll drag you back to its nest, rip you open, and devour your intestines while you're still alive and screaming." He holds Derek's gaze with an intensity that's as disturbing as the picture he's painting, before suddenly leaning back and slurping his coffee. "Probably. I mean, I don't know how quickly you die, but it definitely eats the intestines."
Derek doesn't know what to make of the abrupt tonal shift. This guy's more than a little different, he decides. "Have you seen it?"
"I've seen the crime scene photos and the autopsy reports." Before Derek can ask how, Stiles explains, "My dad's on the force."
"Sheriff Stilinski," Derek guesses. Stiles's wince confirms it, but Derek doesn't push. "There haven't been any crime scenes or bodies in the woods, though. Not since that Wintu woman last summer, and the papers called that a bear attack." It had taken his family a few days to track the skin walker down, and once they'd finished it off, they'd dumped it in the next county, near the site of a recent black bear sighting. The Cherryfield PD made some unsuccessful attempts to identify the woman's body and then declared it a simple animal attack, case closed.
Stiles shakes his head. "Something must have driven it out of the woods and into the urban areas; these bodies are in the warehouse district. A homeless girl was killed last week. And a month ago, a security guard working the nightshift. They were both dragged to a storage container yard by the tracks. And their intestines were torn out and…eaten. There were teeth marks around the wounds. The sheriff thinks it has to be a mountain lion, or maybe wild dogs." There's a world of broken communication and regret in that last statement, but Stiles makes a 'what can you do' gesture, like the sour hurt Derek's smelling doesn't exist.
"Jesus. What kind of information do you have on this thing?"
"Not a whole lot," Stiles admits. "Mostly just enough to identify it. My resources are…limited right now. I've found Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings to start with, and a reference in a diary on display at the Historic Smithson House. But I'm trying to find out how long this thing's been around, if it kills in patterns, how to recognize its nest."
Oh holy crap, Derek gets what Stiles is after now. "You want to hunt it. You want to go out there, go looking for something that can tear out your guts, and face it by yourself! Are you completely insane!" It comes out angrier than he intends, but Stiles is sitting right here in his shop, all thin wrists and pale skin. How much paler would he look with his intestines ripped out, blood on his high school sweatshirt and spilling over the filthy asphalt?
His vehemence doesn't faze Stiles. "Someone's got to stop it. I know the deputies who patrol out there; they're walking beef jerky, and they don't even know it. Besides, it's not like I haven't done this before. I just usually have more to go on."
Derek sputters at Stiles's unflinching determination. His first impression of the guy couldn't've been more wrong. Sure, he shows the same signs of stress: the sunken eyes, clenched jaw dusted with patchy stubble—even now, with his hands relaxed around a coffee mug, his hoodie unzipped and throat bared, there's a wariness in his gaze, his body half-turned toward the front door, just in case. But he's not running scared. He's willing to go into battle on his own, to face a predator that's got him totally out-classed, solely because it has to be done.
Derek's going to have nightmares about what this guy is getting up to out there.
"You could warn them," Derek starts, hoping to make him see reason.
Stiles cuts him off with a hollow laugh. "Nobody's gonna believe me. I've survived 19-years' worth of this town's crazy—including that double year when I was 16 that nobody believes happened—I've used up this lifetime's allotment of familial trust. I'm The Boy Who Cried Lizard Men, and that's fine, I'm cool with that. I just need help researching this thing. If you…." He cuts himself off with a firm headshake, leaving his plea unfinished.
Oh, Derek will do better than research. As soon as Stiles leaves, he's calling his family and telling them they're hunting in the warehouse district tonight. The Hale pack is taking this hidebehind down before Stiles gets anywhere near it. But first, Derek has to convince him not to act the lone wolf tonight.
"I'll help," he says firmly, and Stiles looks up with a smile so wide and unexpected it leaves Derek flustered. It was easy to miss when the guy was mid-panic attack, but he's got great lips, huge dimples, and bright eyes. Derek clears his throat to cover his distraction. "So. Research. The library's newspaper archives go back for decades. You could start there."
Stiles shakes his head. "I'm not really…allowed…to use the library anymore—not for what I need. My dad heard about some of my extracurricular search requests, and now he's got the librarians spying on me and reporting on my search histories."
How the hell do you turn librarians against you? Stiles drums his fingers on the mug, his eyes gone shifty like he doesn't want to talk about it, and there is obviously a story there. Derek folds his arms and waits for him to crack.
It doesn't take long. "There was a thing," Stiles flaps a hand, "with a troll. And I needed to learn how to make C4 using basic, hardware store ingredients. No big deal."
No big deal? Derek remembers that troll; Peter's crushed spine had taken weeks to heal. "You were going to fight a troll? With homemade explosives?" he croaks, a palm slapped over his eyes so he doesn't have to watch Stiles's nonchalant shrug.
"Look, I know I sound certifiable—trolls, yeah right, get lost, kid. Point is, my dad found out, and he's convinced I'm either destined for Cal Tech or a federal prison sentence. He's confiscated my laptop, and he's got the librarians keeping tabs on me, so I'm kind of out of research options. That's why I came in here today."
Derek is still freaking out over Stiles's pursuit of a fucking troll. He has vivid memories of the pack's assault, the blood and the screams, claws and fangs against a 20-foot, 12-ton beast. But part of him can't help wondering how different it might have played out if they'd had some explosives in their arsenal.
Stiles might be onto something there.
"I'll check the library archives," Derek volunteers. "I can go tomorrow morning, before I open. Give me a list of search terms and criteria, and I'll…."
Stiles's mouth drops open, and he gawks like Derek's sprouted fangs and fur. Derek takes a quick inventory to make sure he hasn't transformed without noticing. Nope, still human.
But Stiles's heartbeat is picking up, a flush rising up his throat and that smile creeping back into position. And Derek suddenly wonders if he's the first person to ever believe him. He tries to imagine how isolated Stiles has been, with no one on his side, no one to help bear the awful truth about this town. Derek's pretty sure that kind of isolation would drive him insane.
And suddenly he wonders…would it be so bad if Stiles knew about the pack? There's clearly no one Stiles could tell who would believe his story. And if he would let Derek's pack handle the fighting, Derek wouldn't have to worry about him waging his own wars against the supernatural.
He'll talk to his mother tonight. Maybe he could bring Stiles out for Sunday dinner sometime, let her take her own measure of him; she's got the best instincts for trusting outsiders. At the very least, Deaton should know that there's somebody else conducting blood rituals in town. He'll be pretty pissed about that.
"You'd really do that?" Stiles asks, trying to sound casual even as his body betrays his excitement.
"Definitely," Derek promises, even though Stiles's hidebehind should be dead before morning. Derek is Stiles's first and only ally; he won't blow that fledgling trust by flaking out on a library visit.
They sit at the counter, coffees forgotten, and draw up a research plan for the next few days. Derek will tackle the microfiche archives, and Stiles thinks he can convince the medical examiner to share the animal attack statistics for the past few years. Derek makes a note to source some books on the occult and supernatural; he should have a plausible source for all the knowledge he already has on the subject.
It's full-dark and coming up on closing time when they finish. Stiles yawns and stretches, rolling his shoulders with an athletic grace that Derek can't help watching. When Stiles catches him, Derek stammers, "Uh, so. Is there anything else going on in this town I should know about? Vampires? Werewolves?" Yeah, he's totally smooth.
"Not that I'm aware of," Stiles says, and Derek takes a relieved breath.
"I'll take your word for it," Derek says, and Stiles blushes and grins, as though any degree of trust is a bounty he never hoped to receive. Derek likes the way hope smells on him, vibrant like sun-warmed hay. "Can I get your number?"
"Really?" Stiles squeaks.
Derek smirks. "To call you, after the library."
"Yeah, sure, obviously." Stiles scribbles his number in Derek's notebook and fidgets with the zipper on his hoodie. "You can call me whenever. For…whatever."
Stiles hunts demons for breakfast, but turns bashful when Derek hits on him. Flattered, Derek trails Stiles to the door to show him out.
They collide when Stiles turns back, and they're suddenly close enough for Derek to pick up new scents from Stiles's clothing, fainter than the long-ingrained layers of locker room and sweat: diesel oil and rust. A combination Derek associates with the storage yards south of Channing Avenue.
"Thanks," Stiles says, just as Derek growls, "You didn't!", and Derek has to pretend his grab for Stiles's shoulders was just to steady him, not to give him a hard shake.
"You haven't gone out there, have you?" he asks, trying to sound casual. "To the warehouse district?"
Stiles laughs, but Derek hears the strain in his vocal cords and knows that he has. Today. Christ.
"Well, don't go out there alone, okay?"
"You're worried about me?" Stiles asks, and he's probably aiming for charming, but it comes out sincere.
Derek squeezes Stiles's shoulders and nods once.
Stiles bites his lip. "Well, thanks for that, too. Okay, I'm gonna go now." He jerks his thumb over his shoulder, and Derek lets him go. He hovers in the open doorway as Stiles looks up and down the street and then sprints half a block to an old clunker of a Jeep. Stiles fumbles with his car keys for too long, his eyes flicking all around the empty sidewalks, but when he's finally inside with the engine running, he gives Derek a thumbs-up through the windshield. Derek waves back and watches him pull away from the curb and head north. There's a knot of worry in his chest, and he hopes Stiles goes straight home like he'd planned.
He's turning back into his shop as the chill breeze picks up, and he smells it again, diesel, rust, and something slimy-sweet, like rotten peaches and molded coffee. He looks to his right, tracing the direction of the breeze, but he doesn't see anything…just rows of deceptively-thin lamp posts and shadowed alleys…and Derek doesn't need to see it to know that it's there, watching him. Waiting for him to turn his back. His skin prickles and his hackles rise, an instinctive growl starting low in his throat as his eyes scour the cold night for movement.
Just how fast is it? Faster than a wolf? Does it hunt in the open, or will it follow him into his den? It's followed Stiles this far for invading its nest, and now Derek is the closest viable prey….
He wants to throw his head back and howl, but there's a faster way to summon his pack to him. He retreats into the glow of his shop, watchful gaze on the west end of the street until he can shut and bolt the door. He flips the Closed sign and hurries to the window, watching for yellow eyes as he dials his Alpha's number.
He has its scent now. It's time to go hunting.