Peter steps up to the door and dubiously examines the rusty key in his hand. Why Talia had bothered to install a lock he’ll never guess. This place is so remote that nobody in the closest town could give him directions; only by virtue of his new alpha powers was he able to follow the stale, faded scent down the winding road to the coast.
To his infinite surprise, the key turns in the equally rusted lock with minimal fuss. The door gets a harder shove, but it too gives with a protesting creak. Peter brushes aside a hanging mat of spider webs and steps inside.
He takes in the lumps of furniture lurking in shadow, the achingly familiar photos on the wall, the layer of fine salt-smelling dust that has settled over every surface.
“This will do,” he says to no one in particular.
Peter is puttering around the kitchen when it happens. His eyes, accustomed to sliding over the cabin’s lone window, catch on something for the first time. A sun-bright gleam of silver out in the surf. Too flashy to be natural, too quick to be human.
His claws punch through the coffee cup as easy as snapping a stick of chalk.
Over the following days Peter clutches at his vigilance like a weapon. He wakes and sleeps with the wolf always simmering under his skin, ready to burst through in an instant. But each morning when he scents the air he smells only the sea. And for all his watchfulness, he sees it again only once it decides to show itself.
The mermaid looks ridiculous. Face down, draped bonelessly over a cluster of rocks sticking out from the shallows.
I’m not afraid of you, it says with the insouciant line of its long shimmering body. Look at me, sunning my back.
Peter carefully pads down to the shoreline. His fingertips tingle irresistibly with the urge to turn into claws, so he clenches them into his fists instead.
When he stops at the water’s edge, the mermaid raises its head.
Peter wasn’t actually expecting a certain archetypal mermaid, not really, but somehow he’s still thrown by its short brown hair and pale angular limbs, elbows so sharp they could shred through skin. Literally.
“Hello,” Peter calls.
“Don’t try to eat me. I’m poisonous,” the mermaid warns. As if to prove its point, it flares out the largest fin on its back until it stands erect like a sail. Peter eyes the vicious-looking spines, wonders if it can fling them like a porcupine. Probably not. And it certainly doesn’t look equipped to move quickly on land.
“I don’t eat fish. Not a fan of the taste. Too bland.”
He turns and walks back to the cabin with the unmistakable feeling of eyes glaring daggers into his back.
“Merman! I’m a merman!”
The merman calls himself Stiles. Peter mouths the name in disbelief.
"It’s a nickname," Stiles says, bristling. "None of you humans can ever pronounce my real name."
Peter cocks an eyebrow in challenge. He regrets it a minute later, when he’s still choking around a sharp tangle of consonants that have no business being strung together like that and Stiles is laughing helplessly, floundering wetly against the sand.
“Why did you come here?” Stiles asks. “I haven’t seen anyone around in years and years.” His head tilts meaningfully in the direction of the cabin.
Peter clamps down on the questions that threaten to tumble out of his mouth. He considers Stiles’s question instead, weighs all the different things he could say. In the end he settles for the truth. This, maybe, is the way he could get rid of his pesky neighbor without dirtying his hands.
“I came here to be by myself,” Peter says slowly, each word dropping into the air like a pebble into a pond. “I don’t belong anywhere else. And I’ve killed a lot of people.”
Stiles doesn’t so much as twitch. He nods sagely, as though he could possibly know anything of the bloodstained series of unfortunate events that is Peter’s life thus far. All the terrible things that have been done to him, all the terrible things he’s done.
“Well, you picked a bad spot. I was already here, and I’m not leaving.”
Peter says nothing. Stiles’s tail sweeps lazily back and forth through the shallow water, hypnotizing.
The next time Peter sees Stiles he gets a fish heaved at his feet. A huge fish the color of polished gunmetal; four feet of solid muscle not including the wicked snout, which is a veritable spear. Peter almost drops his claws and fangs, but it’s clearly dead. There’s a ragged bite taken right out of its spine.
“Try this,” Stiles says.
“You caught this thing.”
“Duh.” Stiles’s smile is a smug little thing. “I figured you didn’t have anything fresh to eat up in there.”
Peter is surprised into saying “thank you,” even though it’s more of an imposition than anything. He’s not a goddamned chef. He doesn’t like fish, and Stiles damn well knows it.
“You realize I’m going to have to cook this.” Because his family had always served fish well-done, with a sprig of parsley and a wedge of lemon, even when the red meat had been dripping blood and practically drawing its dying breath on the dinner table.
Stiles looks so scandalized that Peter can’t resist. He mimes lighting a fire and flipping food in a pan, sizzling sounds and all.
“Gross,” Stiles hisses, slinking back into the water. “Why do humans have to ruin everything.”
Why indeed, Peter agrees wholeheartedly.
“That fish, what was it called?”
Turns out that once you gut a fish, strip off its scales and fins, there’s surprisingly little left to eat. Even less, when you do the job with claws instead of a fillet knife. Peter has half a mind to try making it again once he returns to civilization. In a loft with a proper kitchen, using equipment more serviceable than a makeshift tinfoil pan held over a stuttering propane burner. To see if it wouldn’t be even better with parsley and lemon, just like he remembers.
Stiles preens and says something unpronounceable.
“Come on, Stiles. Use your human words.”
“Big fish…” Stiles ventures. He draws his hands through the air in the shape of a lump with a long pointed tip. “Big… sharp… fish?”
Of course. Peter rolls his eyes so hard that he pulls something in his face.
“Did they deserve it?” The question comes weeks later, apropos of nothing, but Peter doesn’t bother feigning ignorance.
Stiles nods decisively and says, “Good.”
Peter sighs. To take his word as truth, to so blithely mete out judgments of life and death-- Stiles is a child. Or simply an animal living by the iron laws of nature; an eye for an eye, red in tooth and claw.
Either way, Stiles wouldn’t understand, which is why Peter is all the more surprised to hear himself speaking again.
“They killed my family. I lost everyone I ever had, and the ones who survived-- they hate me now. They’re afraid of what I did.”
What could there possibly be left to say after that?
Still, there is never truly a moment of silence on the beach. The waves roar softly, creeping closer by the minute, but Peter is twice as clever as the tide and ten times more determined to stay dry. He figured out the high water mark a week ago, then stuck an ancient beach chair right above the spot. And Stiles is nothing if not adaptable. He’s taken to leaving the water completely, wriggling up to the chair on those days when Peter settles in for the long haul: to devour a book, to bask in the sun, or most often, just to stare across the ocean stretching endlessly in every direction.
Stiles sits there now with those deadly barbed hands twisting and untwisting in his lap. Peter could reach across a scant few inches and tear his throat out. Easy as breathing.
“I’m alone too.” Stiles says. His face is turned away, half bathed in moonlight and half in shadow. He chews lightly on his bottom lip. “My mother and father...”
The curious knot in Peter’s mind dissolves into understanding. He leans in and smiles, lowers his voice to a mock-whisper of conspiracy. “The people who did it, did you kill them too?”
“No,” Stiles snorts. “They were just stupid fucking fishermen. They didn’t know any better.”
Stiles’s laugh hangs brash and too-loud in the quiet night air, but his eyes when they meet Peter’s are sad and clear.
Peter goes hunting under the waxing gibbous moon.
His blood is barely running hot before he’s sinking his teeth into the throat of a buck, a powerful young male. It’s a disappointingly easy kill. He knows from the bland traveler’s brochure lying on the coffee table that the apex predators are long gone, pushed farther and farther north by the inexorable encroach of civilization.
There had not been wolves for a century or more in these dark woods by the sea. And then Peter had come.
He eats his fill, then drags what remains of the body back to the cabin to hack up and stuff into the freezer. He’s a killer, not a butcher. Peter eyes the ragged chunks of meat with some regret, thinking vaguely of stew.
The liver, though, he carefully lifts out of the chest cavity. It quivers warmly in his hand before he manages to slide it into a tupperware container, still intact.
Stiles falls upon Peter’s gift in a storm of teeth and claws. Peter stifles his laugh into a cough when Stiles casts about with a surprised, bereft little moué, as though he has misplaced his meal and not just inhaled it in huge gasping mouthfuls. He brightens when he spots a few remaining bits strung in glistening gobbets between his fingers. Peter watches as Stiles sucks down each finger in turn, rolling his tongue around it slowly, trying to make the taste last.
He draws the line at letting Stiles mash his face into the plastic container to lick at the last traces of blood trapped in the corners.
“I was wrong, wasn’t I. You’re not human.”
Stiles refuses to come out. He blathers something about the sun, about his fins drying out, so Peter heaves a sigh and tosses his book onto the chair. His shoes slap against the wet sand as he walks down to the water.
“You can ask me,” Stiles says, rolling onto his stomach with a tiny splash.
“You’ve been looking at my-- everything-- a lot. I know you wanna ask.”
Damn perceptive mermen, Peter thinks. “Are you a shapeshifter?”
“No, not like you are.” Stiles glances at him sidelong from underneath his lashes, as though imparting a grave secret. “I can change into a human, though, if I give up the sea forever. I would never be able to return.”
Peter looks heavenward for a brief, exasperated moment. He's always thought that werecreatures got a pretty good deal in the grand scheme of things, but whatever power had made the rest of his supernatural brethren obviously had a twisted taste for the poetic and an even crueler sense of humor.
“Why on earth would any of your kind do that.”
Stiles shrugs. He does it not only with his shoulders but also the little fins on either side of his hip, tips poking briefly out of the water's surface. “There is one way back. But it requires great sacrifice.”
Now there’s something Peter considers familiar territory. He leans forward. “What kind of sacrifice?”
“The lifeblood of the dearly beloved.” Stiles smirks.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Peter throws his half-eaten apple at Stiles an instant too late. Stiles’s grinning wet face surfaces again a safe twenty feet out. He swims backward slowly, waving goodbye all the while.
What part of that was true? Peter wants to yell, but he doesn’t.
No matter how hard he pricks his ears, instead of a tell-tale heartbeat, all he gets from Stiles is a soft hiccuping murmur, the strange push and pull of an incomprehensibly different heart. Peter tries to imagine what kind of circulatory system would match the sound and fails miserably.
“It was just a joke,” Stiles blurts out three days later, the first time Peter goes down to the shore since that day.
Peter continues strolling along. He’s been doing an excellent job of ignoring Stiles, and he won’t deign to stop now. There’s something immensely satisfying in forcing Stiles to follow him, half-crawling half-swimming through the churning breakers.
“Mer are pretty much like humans, you know? We don’t have powers, we live about the same number of years, and we can’t survive on land. I mean in water. For humans. Whatever is the opposite thing.”
“How uninteresting,” Peter says, finally turning to look at Stiles. His eyes are wide, imploring; there’s an agitated rosy tint blooming on his cheeks that dips all the way down to his throat. “I’m very disappointed.”
His next step falters because by God, he is. He is.
Stiles, thankfully, doesn’t notice. He’s too busy squawking in outrage and turning tail to the open water, splashing Peter’s loafers in his wake.
It changes nothing, of course. Peter is not a hopeless fool, no matter how far he must have gone out of his mind in the last few months-- in the last six years, if he really wanted to get down to it.
Talia would have laughed at him. Peter jerks the blanket higher over his shoulder despite the muggy summer heat and bares his teeth at the dark.
It’s always on full moons that the magnitude of his loss comes crashing down on his head.
He rips the door half off its hinges bolting out of the cabin. He sinks to his knees in the muddy sand and heaves in breath after sobbing breath until his lungs are free of the scent of pack-belonging-family.
He howls across the water. The ocean roars back.
Peter pushes himself up. He feels unfettered in the face of the flood tide, the heart of him roiling with limitless power and blistering rage. He could do anything tonight. Would destroy anyone who stood in his path.
Unbidden, another howl tears itself out of his throat. It carries high over the treetops, sounding less like the call of an alpha werewolf than the mourning cry of a crazed loon. Any wolf within a ten mile radius would understand and come running in spite of its own fear.
But Stiles isn’t a wolf. So Peter doesn’t sit down in his chair, doesn’t wait, and he very carefully feels nothing when Stiles doesn’t show. He runs along the beach for miles and miles until his calves ache and all that’s left in his chest is a burnt out husk of grief and regret.
It takes another few hours to drag himself back home. By the time he falls into bed, covered in sand and sweat, the sun is already hanging high in the sky and any hope of sleep has long gone.
Peter spends the day sitting by the window nursing so many cups of coffee that he loses count. His chair looks warm and inviting down there on the sand, but Stiles is still nowhere to be seen.
Something big has washed up onto the beach. Some kind of dolphin or a small whale, probably dead and flyblown by now. Peter smirks, squinting against the fading sunlight--
And then he’s breaking down the door and barreling down to the water, roaring Stiles’s name.
The first thing he sees are the welts stretching all across Stiles’s silvery flank in angry, criss-crossed slashes. A few of the deepest ones look and smell fresh, dripping sluggishly into the water where Stiles’s blood blossoms around him in a dark cloud.
With a gasp Stiles jerks to life, bucking against the sand. His tail curls and uncurls in violent spasms. He gurgles painfully deep down in his throat.
Stiles draws in a rattling breath and spits out a mess of sibilants that goes on and on, the alien sounds astonishing in their pure viciousness. Peter waits patiently. He has nothing but time these days; he’s fucking made of time; time to hunt down and slowly kill whoever did this.
Finally Stiles pants: "Soft things. Sting."
"Jellyfish," Peter says, and retracts his claws. He wades into the freezing water without toeing off his shoes. The leather is well past the point of salvaging anyway.
Stiles’s upper arms are mostly unmarked so that’s where he grabs him. Stiles stops writhing and pulls taut in a crystalline instant-- his fins shoot out, every single one down to the tiny accessory fins splaying in an arresting defensive display. Peter holds fast.
He’s almost certain that the venom wouldn’t be able to stop his heart.
“I can try to take away the pain,” he explains with more optimism than he feels. He closes his eyes, pushes himself out past the tips of his fingers and pulls in.
Stiles goes boneless in his hands, sagging like a dead thing again. Peter listens carefully for his heart, and-- there it is, no longer tripping over itself in panicked agony but gradually calming, slowing to the lopsided burble that he has grown so fond of.
He adjusts his grip so that Stiles’s head isn’t lolling quite so uncomfortably.
It takes a long, long time for the dark lines to disappear completely under his sodden shirtsleeves. Peter collapses backward onto the sand, carefully shifting Stiles on top of him.
“Thanks,” Stiles sniffles, and Peter has no idea how he manages to speak when he himself can barely muster up the energy.
“The pain will return,” he whispers.
Stiles makes a sound that could be a sob or could be a rebuke. He noses into Peter’s chest with a quavering sigh.
Peter shudders each time the ebbing waves roll over his legs, frigid even at the height of summer. The clawing ache in his gut is Stiles’s pain coiled tightly around itself, shrieking furiously at being deprived of its host. Peter clenches his teeth and shoves it down deeper within himself.
Lying there, Peter thinks of the fire and the coma. His last hazy-red memory of Laura’s face. He thinks of the exquisitely unique configurations of failure and despair, and the nature of all the things that can utterly break a person.
It doesn’t matter. Not with Stiles heavy and warm and alive on top of him. Rubbing his cheek against Peter’s chest in small circles. Someone is making vague soothing sounds. He can’t tell which of them it is.
They would go quietly, if by some ludicrous accident of fate one of the scattered remaining Argents were to stumble across them. Even a frightened human with a pistol would do.
He should move; stand up; get to safety. Peter closes his eyes and slips under.
The largest, most venomous species of jellyfish multiples in droves during the warmest weeks of the year. They swarm up the coast and form an impenetrable dragnet, spelling certain death for any creature trapped in the shallow zone when it happens. Stiles isn’t stupid enough to get caught normally, hell no. He would have migrated downcurrent weeks ago, except he met Peter, so he stayed.
Stiles explains all this rather loudly from across ten yards of ocean. He’s perched on a low rock, hanging on to it by his hands and elbows. He’s still injured in too many places to come ashore.
“Well I’m leaving,” Peter bites out. “You don’t have to worry about getting yourself stung to death again.”
Stiles tilts his head and blinks at him. “I know.”
“I said yeah, I know you’re leaving. Nothing ever stays in the same place for long.” Stiles raises his voice, a confused little line forming between his eyebrows. “Not fish, not me. Why would humans be any different?”
Peter spins on his heel and stomps back up the beach. He turns around halfway and Stiles is still staring at him, looking vaguely perturbed like Peter is the one who’s going crazy.
“Goddamn it Stiles,” he shouts back. “I’m a fucking werewolf!”
“When I was younger I had a best friend. He was human. He gave me my name and taught me how to speak your language.
“One day his father hurt his mom. More than usual, I mean, I used to be able to smell it on him all the time. That time it was bad. The next day he told me his mom and him were moving away. To some town called california, where they'd be safe.
“Do you know where california is? Is it really safe there?"
It’s highly unlikely that Stiles’s young friend would have had the chance to educate him on the finer points of human etiquette, so Peter lets himself stare.
“You’re sunburned,” he says.
He flicks gently at the upturned tip of Stiles’s nose where the skin glows coral pink. A garish splash of color-- his mousy little merman is normally a study in pale silver and muted beige, like a painting by Wyeth at his most disciplined.
Stiles squirms and bats his hand away. “I told you I wasn’t supposed to be spending this much time above. Don’t touch, it hurts.”
“Wait here,” Peter says, rising out of the chair. He walks up to the cabin and returns with a brown plastic bottle. The label is sun-bleached and peeling so badly that it’s illegible, but he remembers this very same bottle, remembers popping open the cap and swiping globs of sunscreen on giggling little faces. Werewolf pups are apparently just as vulnerable to the sun as human children, for reasons entirely unbeknownst to him.
He feels somehow obligated to explain the concept of sunscreen to Stiles instead of ambushing him. Stiles if anything only looks more skeptical, wrinkling his nose when Peter shakes the bottle and the liquid inside makes a queasy sloshing sound. The texture, at least, seems to be all right.
“Hold still,” he warns.
Putting his hands on Stiles’s face is like touching a furnace. He feels more than sees Stiles wince so he keeps his touches light, moving quickly onto his neck and shoulders. There the skin is less heated, less red, dotted here and there with slick clusters of scales. Peter’s hands glide across them like patches of pond ice.
Stiles couldn’t possibly understand the picture he makes sitting by Peter’s feet with that inscrutable little half-smile on his upturned face. Peter’s eyes slide down and back up the curve of his neck, beautifully bared as though in supplication.
“I think we should put some on your chest too,” he hears himself say.
Stiles hums agreeably. He arches into the touch when Peter’s hand slips below the sharp jut of his collarbone. A soft clicking sound starts up from somewhere inside his chest; it deepens and quickens, becoming a continuous low rumble. Peter smooths his other hand down Stiles’s back chasing after the sound, trapping it, finding its origin in the space between throat and ribcage, a thrumming counterpoint to the steady three-beat of Stiles’s primary heart.
Peter has dared far more given far less provocation.
He reaches out and brushes experimentally against the dusky point of a nipple. Stiles stops rumbling. His lips fall open. The sound that escapes him is shockingly obscene, a breathy little moan that sends a tidal wave of heat rushing straight down to pool in Peter’s gut.
Stiles rears back so quickly that for a second Peter’s hands hang in the air, clenching around nothing. Stiles growls, halfway risen onto his tail like a cobra poised to strike. Then Stiles is surging forward and Peter can only take it, the stinging crush of bones and fins and such raw power that all the breath punches out of his lungs in one pained gasp.
Stiles sets steely hands against his chest and pins him down.
Stiles leans in. He snuffles and noses at the shell of Peter’s ear. He licks a wet stripe up Peter’s cheek, then scrapes back down the side of his face with one jagged fang.
He tilts his head up imperiously for a kiss. Peter gives him that, too, dipping in and running his tongue along those razor-sharp teeth until the taste of his own blood floods both their mouths and they break apart, gasping for air.
Stiles’s hands come to a fluttering rest on his shoulders. He rubs at the collar of the shirt where fabric meets skin, claws carefully pointed away from all the soft places on Peter’s neck.
“Can I?” Stiles’s voice is a bare whisper.
“Yes,” Peter answers, and lets himself be drawn down to the wet sand and the lapping waves.
Tomorrow, Peter thinks, pouring himself another cup of coffee.
It was six months ago that he arrived with nothing more than a wad of cash and a few changes of clothes. The money he’s kept safe and hidden in the glovebox (because where would he even spend it?) but his clothes are in truly sorry shape, faded and salt-encrusted, more holes than fabric now from too many close encounters with Stiles’s eager hands.
He plans on ditching them along with the cabin and the whole damn property whenever he tires of this shabby existence. And when that day comes, he’ll simply get in the car and drive away. It’s not as though there’s anything to pack up, anything he would miss.
Or maybe next week. Peter still has a freezer full of fish he needs to cook and eat.
He carries his cup over to the window and peers out. Down on the beach Stiles is already waiting for him. Perched on his favorite pile of rocks out in the surf, basking in the cold morning sun. Every morning like clockwork.
What’s new, though, is the floppy monstrosity of a sunhat sitting on his head. It’s lumpy and soggy and completely lopsided from the streamers of algae hanging off the brim. His clever little merman. They’ve long since run out of sunscreen.
Stiles spots him. A smile breaks over his face, more brilliant than the gleam of his scales in the sun. With one hand he jabs enthusiastically at his hat and with the other he waves Peter down.
Peter opens the door and goes.