The planet is gray. A sandy, level gray from the turf to the sky, but it's still somehow bright enough that Derek has to wear shades. It smells like rotten eggs and hot metal, and the tattered shacks and tents they find in the middle of a clearing two miles south from the Stargate are devoid of all life. There's no wind, just the stagnant scent of despair, and the abandoned shantytown looks more pathetic than menacing, despite the fact that nothing is throwing shadows.
“Always a fan of death worlds,” Erica says. She has her claws out, one ticking rhythmically on the handle of her P-90.
Isaac shudders and tugs on the ends of his scarf. “There's nothing here. Can we just go? This place is giving me the creeps.”
Derek grunts in agreement. They're clearly too late to help stop whatever happened here—he'd guess Wraith, except they're more likely to cull the herd, not snatch up them all. Maybe the survivors just grabbed what they could and ran. The tents suggest that they probably weren't the original owners of this planet, anyway.
Boyd says, “Still have to find the signal.” He's got a scanner out, brow wrinkled. It's a fairly strong distress beacon, and Dr. McKay's giddily hoping it's powered by a ZPM, but there was enough doubt to send out the werewolves instead of Team Sheppard; this part of the galaxy is known for its particularly vicious animal inhabitants, and the General had been adamant.
So sure, lob all the possible maulings Derek's way. It's not like his pack isn't used to it, right?
Derek likes his job, he does, but he can't help thinking that the SGC only shipped him to Atlantis so he could go berserk about his sister's death as far away from earth as possible. But then they gave him a pack and told him to save people. If they had wanted him to self-destruct, then they shouldn't have given him a reason to live. General Sheppard probably thought this was the better option.
There's a sudden gust of wind, the first shift in air since they'd stepped through the ‘gate, and Erica spins around, the tall, nearly dead grass clinging to her calves. “Something smells wrong. Like—”
“Sulfur,” Boyd says.
“No.” Erica's nose wrinkles. “Blood. Fresh blood.”
Derek breathes deep. The hot metal scent of before is stronger, Derek can taste it in the back of his mouth—his fangs drop, and he rests his gaze on the tree line. Gnarled, bare limbs stab the sky, jagged rocks forming small, sharp hills around their bases, but there's a dark hollow low to the ground. A cave. Something's hiding.
“Over there,” Derek says, jerking his head. He pulls back his beta shift, but doesn't draw his gun.
Erica has her P-90 pointed at the ground.
Boyd still has his tablet out, frowning. He says, “I think that's where the signal is coming from.”
Isaac says, “You know this is usually when we all get attacked by dinosaurs, right?”
“Don't be a wuss,” Erica says, but she stays back behind Boyd and Derek as they start off across the field, guarding their six.
The scent of blood is stronger when they reach the cave.
Derek slips off his sunglasses and hooks them into the front of his vest. He rubs a palm over the opening—it's clearly cut, not worn, and there's a blinking blue keypad just inside the darkness. Ancient-made, or maybe Genii. The door is wide open, but nothing and nobody is rushing through to get them. Derek doesn't smell anything that's particularly human, but that doesn't actually mean anything in Pegasus.
Boyd is the only one of them with a strong enough expression of the ATA gene to activate anything Ancient, but Derek pushes him back when he tries to go into the cave first.
It's small and cramped inside, a round, low-ceilinged room. There's a soft blue glow blanketing everything, and Derek can hear rabbit-quick breaths and a flickering heart. One side of the room is lined in metal bars. Derek blinks light out of his eyes when Boyd's hands glide over a console on the other.
The smell of blood is coming from the cage, where a lump of dark brown fur is pressed up against the bars. There are scratch marks along the wall, and large piles of what look like baseball-sized fruit strewn all over the floor and tables, the largest pile smashed on and around the console Boyd's currently staring at.
Whatever the animal is, it doesn't move when Derek comes closer. The blood, as far as Derek can tell, is coming from raw wounds all over its font legs and paws. The opposite side of the cage has a trigger, covered in dried rusty-brown blood, with a chute and container that Derek greatly suspects was supposed to be for food. It's empty now.
“Was it—” Isaac appears over Derek's shoulder. “Did it trigger the beacon this way?”
Boyd hefts a sticky, half-rotten fruit and says, “It's got lousy aim.”
“Hey, it worked, didn't it?” Erica says. She reaches her hand out as if to pet the thing, and Derek grabs her wrist.
They have no idea what they're dealing with here.
“What?” she says. “Oh c'mon, he's like the size of an otter! Look at those adorable fuzzy ears!”
“Otters have sharp teeth,” Derek says.
“Yeah, and I can heal,” she says, but she pulls her hand back with a pout.
“Anyone else got that ominous feeling that this thing can morph into a velociraptor?” Isaac says.
Erica says, “That happened once, Isaac, you really need to let it go,” and then pokes at the otter-like creature with a metal rod.
It jerks up quicker than Derek was expecting and he takes a hasty step back. The thing blinks up at them for a long slow moment, eyes cloudy, and then eels forward, chittering, and stretches an injured paw out through the cage bars.
Derek watches the thing's claws open and close, bewildered, until Body says, dry, “I think it wants you to let it out.”
“Oh, hell no,” Isaac says.
The chittering gets louder, more plaintive, and Derek finds himself reaching for the latch. There's a combination lock, and Derek just twists it in his grip and pulls, snapping it in half.
When the door creaks open, the thing dashes out and Derek braces his feet apart, prepared for an attack. Instead finds himself with an armful of squirming, warm fur; it's trying to curl up in a ball under his throat and Derek, surprised, tilts his head and lets it.
It's thin under his hands. Thinner than it should be, Derek thinks, fingers curving over its protruding ribs. Which is probably because its food is all over the rest of the room, and who the hell knows how long it's been down there alone.
“It likes you,” Erica says with a smirk. “Hernandez is going to cream himself if you bring that thing back with us.”
“We're not bringing it back with us,” Derek says, and immediately the animal goes crazy, scrabbling at Derek's vest, clinging to his uniform with sharp little claws—Derek's getting blood all over him, and he says, “Hey, calm down, shhh, shhh,” running a soothing hand down its back over and over until it settles, panting, half curled over his shoulder. There's a little silver tag on its back right leg, and it flinches a little when Derek's fingers skim by it.
It's as big as an otter, but seriously thin as a stick, Derek could probably wrap both hands around its middle and touch fingers. Fuck.
“Okay,” Derek says. “We're taking it back.”
They're calling it an otter even though technically it isn't an otter, with small round ears and a wide furry mouth, webbing around the claws and a thick tail. And he—”It's a boy,” Hernandez says, grinning proudly, while the otter sullenly slinks around Derek's feet, chittering indignantly at him—won't leave Derek the fuck alone.
Highly intelligent, with freaky watchful eyes and a tendency to lick himself when he thinks no one is looking, he insists on sleeping in Derek's quarters. No matter how many times they try quarantining him in the Xenobiologist lab, he just gets out and worms his way into Derek's…everything. And everyone's a little too leery of actually locking him up, considering the trauma he's been through, so honestly they're not really trying that hard to stop him.
General Sheppard thinks it's funny, and Dr. McKay keeps complaining about rabies, but so far the otter hasn't done anything worse than eat off of Derek's plate in the mess.
Derek only lets him share because he's still too thin.
“He needs a name,” Isaac says. The otter lets him scratch under his chin for a second before he ducks back under Derek's arm and snatches a piece of bacon.
“He doesn't need a name,” Derek says. Naming him implies that they're going to get to keep him, and Derek is under no illusion about that. Once the bandages come off his paws and he fattens up a little, they're probably going to insist he be released back into the wild.
Derek isn't going to get attached.
The tag on his back leg glints in the light as he sits on his haunches to munch on the piece of bacon. Derek touches it with a finger, expecting the otter to pull his leg back, but instead he cocks his head curiously at Derek and inches his foot toward him in invitation.
Derek rubs the medallion between his thumb and forefinger. There's an Ancient hieroglyphic etched on one side, like the ones rimming the ‘gate. If he paid more attention to Dr. Martin, he'd probably know what it means.
The otter chitters at him, bumps his head under Derek's chin, before tugging his leg back and reaching for another piece of food.
The otter likes to ride around on Derek's shoulder. It's been over three weeks—he's heavier now, and holds onto the ends of Derek's hair, leaning up over his head to stick his nose in everyone else's business, but Derek gets used to the weight.
The first time Derek's team goes off-world after what Isaac's calling the Otter Mission, they come back to find the otter riding along Corporal McCall's head instead, and Derek isn't even a little jealous at all. The otter just yanks on McCall's hair when he sees Derek, though, like he's steering him, and then takes a flying leap at Derek when he's close enough, scrambling into his arms
Erica laughs at him, but Derek just buries his face in the otter's warm fur. He smells like Cheetos and McCall, but Derek doesn't mind. And then his hand drifts down to tug at the tag, a habit he'd started in greeting, and pauses when all he gets is paw.
McCall grins at him. He stuffs his hands in his pockets, rocks back on his heels, and says, “There was a hidden latch, General Sheppard lit it up like a Christmas tree.”
Derek feels a pang in the middle of his chest. It's good that they got the tag off—great even; he can tell the otter is happy, the way he's pushing his paw into Derek's hand, like he's showing off his newly bare ankle. It's just that—he's healthier now, his coat is this glossy thick brown, he's got meat on his bones. It's only a matter of time.
“We'll take him to the mainland tomorrow,” Derek says. “See if he can hunt.”
That's the last and most important test, making sure he can feed himself and survive. Derek does not secretly hope that he'll fail.
The otter won't settle down that night. He keeps squirming over Derek's body, across the mattress, disappearing under the bed before leaping up at Derek again from the other side. Derek's trying to sleep, and if the otter doesn't shut the fuck up and stop nudging into his face every other minute, squeaking, Derek's going to give into temptation and just choke him out.
Derek flashes his eyes at him, growling deep in his chest, and the otter freezes.
He's sitting on his chest, inches from Derek's face.
Derek growls again, says, “Stop it,” around his fangs.
The otter cautiously creeps up until their noses are touching.
Derek flashes his eyes again.
The otter jerks back with a sneeze and then—
There's suddenly a naked boy on top of him. No, not a boy—a leanly muscled young man, with long limbs and huge dark eyes, and messy brown hair, leveraged up on his hands on either side of Derek's head.
Derek is too stunned to move, his hands hovering just over bare hips, a thin sheet all that's keeping their skin from touching at the thighs and groin.
The man's voice cracks a little on, “Oh my god, this is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me,” and then he passes out.
Within two weeks Stiles has his own room and is on his own away team with McCall and Derek still has no idea what the fuck happened.
And he doesn't miss his otter snuggles, no matter what Erica says—he is not extra grumpy.
He watches Stiles from across the mess and stabs at his food and ignores Isaac's sympathetic frowns.
And then three weeks after the incident, Derek wakes up to scratching sounds at his door and then the whoosh of his lock being triggered and ends up face to face with Stiles as an otter again.
Stiles stares at him for a long moment, bumps his nose into Derek's chin, and then curls up into a ball under his arm and sighs into sleep.
It takes nearly twenty minutes for Derek to unwind enough to follow him down.
By morning, Derek has a face full of hot salty skin, one leg jammed up between solid thighs and a noticeable hard-on riding his hip. He mouths at Stiles's throat before he's fully awake, feels Stiles's full-body shiver, and then pulls back to roll over and shove his head under his pillow.
Stiles doesn't get to ignore him for nearly a month and then think everything is okay. They haven't even spoken more than ten words total to each other since they met, Derek doesn't know what Stiles's game is here, but he doesn't like it.
He feels a hand hovering over his bare back, nervous fingers lightly tracing the triskele tattoo.
Stiles says, “Derek,” and his voice is hoarse, like he's still unsure how to use his vocal chords even after all this time. They have no idea how long Stiles was stuck as an otter, let alone trapped in that cage. According to Dr. Martin, Stiles doesn't even know.
Derek doesn't say anything.
After a few minutes, Stiles sighs and gets up. There's a rustle of clothing, and Derek grits his teeth against the image of Stiles wearing his things, and Derek doesn't relax until he hears the door open and close.
Stiles talks too much.
Derek hears his voice all over Atlantis now, and he laughs with his mouth wide open and he's taken to eating lunch with the pack, McCall at his side.
He sits across from Derek and thinks nothing of taking food off his plate, and the first time it happens they both freeze.
They stare at each other, and then Derek very carefully nudges his tray closer to the middle of the table and Stiles very carefully steals all his bacon, and Derek can't help the way his shoulders settle and the way he stares at Stiles's mouth—the tips of his ears flush when Stiles throws a tiny, shy smile his way.
It happens every lunch now, and any time they're both there at dinner and nobody talks about it at all.
When the klaxons sound at an unexpected off-world activation, Derek's first thought isn't about Stiles. His first thought is about Isaac, who McCall had wanted along with them as extra muscle. His second thought is about Stiles, though, and it doesn't unnerve him as much as he thinks it probably should.
When he sees Isaac, bloody but unhurt, he's relieved. When he doesn't immediately see Stiles after, he has to swallow down a howl and clench his hands into fists to keep from popping his claws.
McCall is missing, too, and Argent and Dr. Martin are propping each other up—Isaac says McCall had ordered Isaac to help them retreat, and that they didn't know where Stiles was at all.
Isaac says, “Fucking dinosaurs,” and Derek is five seconds away from demanding they redial the world so he can rip them apart with his bare hands when the ‘gate activates again and McCall comes stumbling through, an otter gripped tight to his chest.
“Goddamn dinosaurs,” McCall says.
The otter is limp in McCall's arms, but he blinks muzzily at Derek when he gets close. It isn't so much a leap as it is an exhausted flop into his arms this time, and Derek runs his hands and nose all over him, making sure he's okay. His paws are a mess again, there's a single shallow cut along his side, but most of the blood seems to be McCall's.
“I'm fine, thanks for asking,” McCall says, but by then Dr. Biro is rushing in and Derek just makes sure Stiles is pressed up close to his chest, where he can still hear his heart.
Derek falls asleep with the otter curled under his chin and wakes up with his arms around Stiles's waist. He rubs his palms up and down his spine and Stiles arches into it—there's a chit-chit-chit noise in his throat that makes Derek lick over his Adam's apple.
Stiles makes a small pained sound, and Derek runs his hands down Stiles's arms, circles his wrists so he can mouth over the sore, splintered cuts all over Stiles's palms. He watches idly as black pulses through his veins and disappears, and Stiles slumps down on his chest.
“Nice,” he says, euphoric.
Derek noses the thin skin under his ear, lightly bites at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and presses closer.
“Are we forgiven now?” Stiles says. He tilts his head back, watches Derek with dark, pupil-blown eyes. His lips are pink and chapped, and he runs his tongue over them.
Derek tugs the sheet out of the way, and Stiles hisses when their hips touch.
Stiles says, “I'm taking that as a yes,” and kisses him.
Stiles kisses like he isn't sure how he should, teeth alternately blunt and otter-sharp as he nips into him, and Derek rolls them so he's sprawled on top of Stiles, holds his face in his hands until he slows down, until he lets Derek lick at the corners of his mouth and find his way inside.
He hooks his hands behind Stiles's thighs, draws his knees up on either side of his hips, settles deep in between them and coaxes Stiles's anxious squirms into a grind. Stiles stretches out his spine and groans and Derek watches Stiles's eyes flutter shut and forgets to breathe.
Stiles eats all of Derek's bacon and toast at breakfast.
He shoves his feet between Derek's under the table and steals Derek's orange juice and pouts when it's all gone.
McCall says, “Dude, you can have mine,” inching his glass toward him, but Stiles just smiles at Derek until Derek pushes his tray all the way over to him and gets up to get seconds.
“Stiles looks happy,” Erica says, falling in line next to him.
“Stiles is eating my cinnamon bun, he should look happy.” They don't even have any more of those, he has to get a square of crumble cake instead.
“Sure,” Erica says, and winks at him. “You look happy, too.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Derek says, but there's no heat to his words. He decides to get two pieces of crumble cake, another orange juice, and an almost full plate of only bacon. Stiles still needs fattening up.
He ignores Erica's loud laughter as he walks away.
Stiles still rides around on his shoulders as an otter and he still goes off-world with McCall, because he can't stand being cooped up, even if it's in an entire floating city.
He sleeps every night with Derek, a big ball of fur, and he wakes up every morning naked and horny, and Derek kisses all the little scars all over his palms and rubs at his right ankle, a phantom ache, Stiles tells him, that never fully goes away.
Stiles throws baseballs into the water off the east pier and never eats fruit. He tells Derek about his father and how he can't remember what planet he's from, but knows all the movements of the stars—he maps every world he goes to, and Derek knows one day he's going to find his way home.
But now—now, Derek watches him glide through the sun-drenched ocean, slick and dark. He slips out of his fur from one moment to the next, and says, “You coming in?” arms hooked over the edge of the pier, spilling gray-green water all over the deck. He grins up at him, wide and bright.
Derek shucks off all his clothes and doesn't think about tomorrow.