"Oh, shit," says Stiles, as the Ring falls and rolls away, vanishing into the crowd.
"What?" Scott's still looking around the place nervously; it's a moving forest of huge human legs, thick as pillars. Stiles can't blame him for being worried; they could get trampled easily.
"I dropped it," Stiles whispers.
"You what?" Scott's eyes snap back to him, big as saucers. "No way. No way, Stiles. Wizard Deaton entrusted us with it! The fate of the world depends on it! And only you can - "
"Melt it in the volcano at the edge of the world? Yeah, I got that part." Stiles wipes his hands on his breeches and takes a deep breath. "Okay. Cover for me. I'm goin' in."
"In there? The humans will squash you like grapes beneath their feet!"
"Gee, thanks for the imagery, Scott. I really needed to visualize my soft tissue being ruptured by giants and my blood staining the boards like freakin' grape-juice."
"Ugh." Scott blinks, appalled. "I. I didn't mean - "
"Eh, 's okay. Just cover for me."
And in Stiles goes.
He darts between stinking boots, heavy as boulders, and coarse-woven trousers that must be scratchy as hell to wear, how do these people not uniformly end up with genital rashes? Ouch. Ignoring the humans and their lack of personal hygiene, he runs his fingertips along the filthy floor, trying to remember where that clink had come from, when the Ring had dropped. Had it been here? Or here? Or -
"Outta my way, midget," booms someone from above him, and Stiles only manages to dodge the kick because Scott yanks him out of the crowd by the ankle. It's perfect timing, too, because Stiles has just snagged a telling glitter of gold.
"Thanks," Stiles pants, and Scott shrugs.
"You said to cover for you. So? Did you find it?"
"Yep." Stiles shows him the Ring, grinning, and puts it back into his smock. He might need a necklace to put that thing on, although, damn, a necklace? Won't exactly be helping with his masculinity, here. He's only four feet tall (well, tall for a Hobbit, but still), and he has a face that makes most girls think of either marshmallows or kittens, so. He'd hoped to avoid prettifying himself even further, but at this rate, that may not be an option.
"We need to get you a necklace, or something," Scott echoes his thoughts, but Stiles still scowls at him, because it's the principle of the thing.
"Sure. I'll just pick up my manhood at the Lost & Found after we burn the Ring in Mordor."
Maybe it wasn't the best idea to show Scott the Ring, because a couple of other people seem to have noticed it, too. If by 'people,' one means 'burly, hairy, bearded men in beer-sodden tunics'. Fuck.
"Er," says Stiles, as way too many eyes start swinging toward him, lit with that weirdly eager light Stiles is used to associating with the Ring. It's getting to them. Holy shit, it's getting to them. Singing its whispery, seductive song. "When is our contact arriving, again?"
"I don't - I don't know."
"Yeah, well, neither do I. Ain't this plan genius? Stroll into a place full of corruptible, greedy men with the One Ring, what could possibly go wrong? At this rate, it won't be the One Ring but the One Wring, as in, the one and only time they'll wring our necks, because we'll be too dead for them to bother doing it twice."
"Wizard Deaton said - "
"Wizard Deaton is not god, okay, although he's as ineffable as - eek!"
A hand that weighs more than a brick has just landed on Stiles's shoulder. As Stiles looks up - and up - it turns out to belong, predictably, to a brick shithouse of a man. As massive and stinky as a brick shithouse, anyway.
"Yer a pretty lil' Hobbit-boy, aren't ya?"
"What're ye doin' around these here parts?" The man leers on 'parts,' and - ew, gross.
"First of all? I'm not a boy, I'm a full-grown adult - "
"You're still a teenager," Scott puts in.
"I'm old enough to vote in Shire meetings."
"But you never vote in Shire meetings. You're off sneaking chicken-sticks from my mom's kitchen 'cause no one's looking."
"Scott, will you please let me defend my virtue? Without interrupting me?"
"Er, dude, it doesn't sound like you're defending your virtue. Sounds more like you're telling him you're legal enough to do whatever it is he wants."
"Wha - no! Never! No! Excuse me, sir," Stiles says, to the still-leering shithouse, "but this is what is commonly known as 'displacement'. It is not I that you are interested in, but something else that I have on me that is calling to you, and - and warping your mind - "
"I c'ld warp yer mind. Make ye feel nice an' - "
"No," says Stiles, stumbling forward, away from that hand. It follows him. "No, I'm sure you - "
"Let. Go," growls a voice, then, and the brick of a hand is suddenly - gone.
Stiles gulps around a dry throat, glancing back to see… Mr. Shithouse shrinking away. Very away. To the other end of the bar. What?
That's a -
"It's a guy in a hood," Scott says, theatrically, and Stiles sighs.
"I know, Scott. He's gotta be a Ranger."
"Didn't Deaton say our contact was a Ranger…?"
"Yeah, but I wouldn't be surprised if this guy killed the real Ranger and just put on his clothes, or something. Can't you feel the waves of menace emanating off of him?"
"He does have this serial killer vibe," Scott admits.
"I can hear you," rumbles the Ranger. Maybe-Ranger. Ranger-Danger.
"Oh, good, so you know that we know that you know that we know that you're dangerous. Very, very dangerous. You can't take us by surp - gah!" Stiles squeaks, because the Ranger just grabs them both by the backs of their cloaks and lifts them, and all Stiles and Scott can do is dangle uselessly from his grip until the Ranger finds a table in a dark, musty corner and dumps them on a pair of chairs.
Stiles coughs indignantly, running a hand over his sore neck, where his cloak's drawstring had been pulled tight. "All right, so you can take us by surprise. But that doesn't mean - "
"Shut up," says the Ranger, calmly, and sweeps the length of his black cape aside to sit on a chair, himself. He takes out a dagger and starts polishing it. With his gloves. He's wearing black leather boots, too, and even they have blades strapped to them. What the fuck?
Well, at least there appears to be a Radius of Stark Terror around them, now; the people that had been staring at Stiles (at the Ring) covetously have found other things to look at. And other tables to be at, leaving a circle of hastily-abandoned furniture all around them.
It'd even be impressively hot, if Stiles wasn't in the immediate vicinity of all the sharp objects that glint, like fangs, from within the shadowy recesses of the Ranger's outfit.
That isn't an outfit; it's an outbreak. Of knives.
Little knives. Big knives. Slender knives. Long knives. Knives with delicate filigree along their edges, and thicker knives, that look upsettingly… nicked. Like meat cleavers. That've been hacking into a lot of meat. A lot of bone.
"Meep," says Stiles, softly.
The Ranger lifts a boot and thunks it onto their table.
Sort of like Stiles's teeth.
"Talk," the Ranger commands. "That is no trinket you carry."
Scott's sitting upright, like a puppy called to attention. Stiles has the distinct impression that if Scott had a tail, he'd be wagging it. "Um," says Scott. "We're sorry, sir, but we don't - "
"Don't call him sir," Stiles snaps, because he has the survival instincts of a dead lemming. "He wasn't even polite enough to introduce himself. He shows up out of nowhere and manhandles us and - "
" - saves you from being forcefully stripped by an inn full of lunatics driven mad by the Ring," the Ranger finishes, quietly.
Stiles's throat clicks. "Yeah, that," he says. "Still. We don't know your name."
"Do names matter?" the Ranger asks, and tilts his head. The dim firelight barely penetrates the depths of his cowl, but Stiles catches a glimpse of a strong, stubbled jaw, an unevenly broken nose and near-transparent, intense blue eyes.
Stiles's heart thumps. "Uh," he says. "Um, yeah, they do. It's common courtesy to - "
"Courtesy does not apply to wartime," the Ranger waves dismissively, "although I do know your name. Stiles of Beacon Hills."
"You - you know me," Stiles says, dumbly.
"So you are Deaton's messenger!" Scott sounds delighted, but then, he's an idiot. He doesn't realize the danger posed by ruggedly handsome men with - with eyes. Blue eyes. And jawlines. And -
"Don't go believing him that quickly," Stiles cautions.
The Ranger sighs. And leans back in his chair. It creaks, but its creak resembles an embarrassingly pornographic groan, which, yeah, of course it does. If Stiles were a wooden contraption - not just of the morning wood variety - and had a muscular Ranger sitting on top of him, he'd be groaning like that, too.
God. Where is his mind going?
To the gutter.
"My name is Derek," says the Ranger, and the name instantaneously etches itself into Stiles's long-term memory with all the force of a battering-ram carving a name onto a stone wall. This time, the firelight glitters off the six-pointed star of the Ranger's cloak-clasp.
"And your family name?" Stiles challenges.
There's a momentary stiffening of the Ranger's - Derek's - shoulders, but soon, they relax. "The Rangers are my only family."
Sad story, then. Or maybe just a bad story. Or both. "Okay," says Stiles, frantically searching his mind for other reasons to doubt this guy. He has the Hunter's clasp. He knows about Stiles. He knows about - "One last question. What's Wizard Deaton's favorite hobby?"
"The hell kinda question is that?" Scott goggles.
"Answer it, please." Stiles firms his own jaw and meets the Ranger's eyes, gleaming as they are from within his hood.
"Blowing smoke rings," Derek says, finally, his tone as prickly as his stubble. "In stupid shapes."
"They're not stupid, they're brilliant," Stiles retorts, but feels a knot loosen inside himself. "Fine, then. You're the real deal."
"That was a smart question to ask," Derek observes, and Stiles tries not to bristle. Tries, and fails.
"Look, just because we Hobbits are small doesn't mean our brains are small, too."
"I didn't say that."
"You implied it. With that desultory glance up-and-down my body."
"Desultory?" An amused note enters Derek's voice. "Is that what you think it was?"
"Guys," Scott breaks in, looking wide-eyed, "maybe we should take this somewhere else? Because there're a heck of a lot more people in here, now, than there were before…"
"Shit," says Stiles, because while he's been focusing on not focusing on Derek's theoretically statuesque physique under that cape and under all that leather, the crowd near the bar has grown far bigger. It's at least thrice the size of what it was, when they'd entered. Gamblers and disreputable folk from across town seem to have heard the Ring's subtle call. "We really should - eep!" he exclaims, because Derek's manhandling him again.
"Seriously, is this a thing with you? Do you always pick people up with your bare hands?" Gloved hands, technically.
"Only if they're tiny," Derek says, and carries both Stiles and Scott right out of the inn.
"We're not tiny," Stiles splutters, as the cold night air hits him in the face.
"Um," says Scott. "We kind of are."
"Would you please stop giving me a size complex? And also, compared to Towering Rage, here, anyone would be short."
Derek just grunts. And sets them down in front of another door, this one to a nondescript, ordinary-looking cottage. A very decrepit ordinary-looking cottage.
"Whose place is this?"
"Mine," says Derek, "when I'm in town."
"Which is how often…?"
Derek shoves the stubborn door open, and - surprise, surprise - hauls them in. "Irrelevant."
"Gotcha. Like your full name is irrelevant. Like your mysterious past is irrelevant. Like your face is irrelevant - "
Derek throws back his hood.
" - and devastatingly attractive. Whatever. Moving on?"
"You will tell me of your experiences with the Ring, in the morning, so that I know what to be prepared for. But now, you will sleep. We will begin our journey on the morrow, after breaking fast."
"I'll break it fast, all right. I'm always starving in the mornings."
"Will the, um, people from the inn chase after us?" Scott's back to doing his nervous dither, glancing repeatedly at the door, as if it might be kicked in at any moment. Somehow, Stiles doubts it; only suicidal madmen would chase after Derek, with any plans of engaging him in hostilities. Or even niceties. Not that Stiles can imagine Derek engaging in niceties. With anyone.
Hey, does that mean Stiles is mad? For accepting the beast's invitation into its den?
The beast in question doesn't seem the least bit perturbed. What does it have to be perturbed about? "I will keep watch throughout the night, so that we may escape unmolested."
"Speak for yourself," Stiles mutters, taking off his cloak and letting it drop to the floor, because the cloak-stand is way too tall to reach. "I got plenty molested, on the way here."
"Not anymore," Derek says, implacable and solid, and Stiles's heart thumps, again.
"Not. Anymore," Derek repeats, like Stiles is a moron. "You will come to no harm, so long as you are with me."
Stiles stares at him.
Derek stares back.
Then, he just pivots on his booted feet, and… disappears. Into another room.
"Er." Scott hovers hesitantly, just inside the threshold. "Where're we gonna sleep?"
Anywhere my boner isn't readily visible, Stiles thinks, and settles down on his just-fallen cloak. "Right here," Stiles says. "Where else? Does this place look palatial to you?"
"No," says Scott, slowly, and turns to study him. "Are you blushing?"
"Who, me? No. Why would I be blushing? I'm not blushing. I have no capillaries in my face. My circulatory system doesn't work that way."
Great. There's a smile twitching at the corner of Scott's mouth. The exact same smile Scott sports when Stiles talks about girls. "That Ranger is not a girl," Stiles feels obliged to point out, because. Because it's important. Stiles likes girls.
"I noticed." And Scott's still smiling. Bastard. "You think he's married?"
"I don't see how that's relevant. To anything. In fact, didn't he just say his family background was irrelevant?"
"Which was why you kept asking him about it. Uh-huh."
"I didn't keep asking - "
"No, you're right. Nothing interesting about him, at all."
"Shut up, Jesus, you haven't changed since we were three."
"I don't think either of us knew about blowjobs when we were three."
"I'm going to sleep." Stiles turns over, away from Scott, and hears Scott lay out his own cloak, as well. Right next to Stiles. Like always.
Several minutes pass, with the rustling sounds of two teenage Hobbits trying to find comfortable positions on a floor comprised of icy wooden boards and nothing else.
Eventually, Stiles mumbles: "You think he's married?"
Scott huffs a laugh. "No."
"Except maybe to his angst."
"Well, yeah, that."
"I bet it's a monogamous relationship."
"I bet they'll have lots of little angst-babies."
"I bet they were childhood sweethearts."
"I bet they ran away from home."
"Made love under the stars."
Scott chortles, and Stiles turns over to face him, smirking. "We need to sleep, dude," Scott says. "Epic quest, and everything. Starts tomorrow."
"You think we'll meet more weirdos, along the way?"
"Who knows? Maybe I'll meet a chick. I'd like to meet a chick."
"What kind of chick?"
"A hot chick."
"Hotness comes in lots of varieties, Scott. Be specific."
"Lots of varieties, huh? Like, 'tall, dark and handsome'?"
"Shove it. Wait, is that your type, too?"
"When it comes to chicks, sure. Someone strong. Beautiful. With a good arm."
"A good arm," Stiles repeats, snorting around his own giggles. "What're you into, Scott, girls punching you?"
"Being able to punch me."
"Hm. Point. Although, I also wouldn't mind a cold, ethereal Elven sorceress. With strawberry-blond hair. And green eyes."
"That's very specific."
"I'm a specific kinda guy. My fantasies are very detailed."
"Stop. Just. Stop."
"Apparently, stubble and broken noses do it for me, too."
"What? I thought you were being all supportive, and stuff. And who knows? Maybe they weren't just very specific fantasies. Maybe they were visions. Deaton said I was special, didn't he? Maybe I will meet a lovely Elven sorceress."
"And I'll meet my perfect warrior-woman. Right."
"Where's your faith, my friend? You've gotta have faith. I've gotta have faith. I have to believe that one day, I'll meet someone that doesn't have to terrify me in order to turn me on."
"Let me know how that works out."
"I'm not actually that into Ranger Strong-and-Silent, you know."
"Stiles, I haven't seen you blush that hard since the time we accidentally saw the Shire girls bathing. And they were naked. This guy? Was wearing more layers than a nun, and he still made you blush like that."
"Sacrilege! Are you saying his scariness trumps female nudity? Impossible!"
"Maybe it isn't just his scariness that does it for you."
Stiles remembers the way Derek had driven everyone away; the way he'd promised to protect Stiles, no matter what. "That's just… he's just…" It's what Wizard Deaton told him to do. Derek's just doing his job.
"Can we sleep, now? I'm so tired, I'm talking with my eyes closed."
"Really." Stiles stretches a hand across, blindly, until he finds Scott's. The same blunt, familiar fingers, peasant-rough and honest.
Scott twines those fingers around Stiles's. Safe. Kept. Like they're still in one of their burrows, back home.
"Thanks for comin' along with me, man," Stiles manages, around the lump in his throat. They may not make it back to the Shire, after this. Scott knew that when he decided to accompany Stiles. Deaton had told them, plainly, what the dangers were, but that the mission was Stiles's, and Stiles's alone. Scott could easily have chosen not to come. Stiles wouldn't have blamed him. If Stiles's dad were still around, he wouldn't have let Stiles go. Scott's mom hadn't been very cooperative, either.
But Scott had followed Stiles, anyway.
Because Scott is his brother. Not of blood, but of bond.
"No big," Scott yawns, and squeezes his hand.
And they fall asleep like that, holding hands, on the floor of a Ranger's house.